Friday, December 31, 2010

The Speechwriter: A Sestina

Horses, Riders, Girls

Weary toilers labor in the mine.
Their nights 'neath murky skies, bereft of cover
To shield them from the cold bite of the dawn.
To dark accustomed, by daylight blind,
With lives short, meaningless, and cold
Ripe to fall like fruit into my weave.

I work in shadow. Soft webs there I weave
of lies dyed with truth. Fears and hopes I bind to mine.
So they gather: to find respite from the cold
they grasp at scraps of fellowship I offer. No cover
do they give. 'Tis but yet another blind
that steals from them the light of dawn.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Competition and Cooperation

Hands Off Newtown
Hands Off Newtown, Sydney, 2010

Marnie Louise Froberg of Enlightenment Ward raised a pretty good question the other day. It concerns one of those cultural assumptions that are so fundamental that most of the time it never even occurs to anyone that they're there.
Is there such a thing as healthy competition? I don’t really think so. I have yet to see one example of competition where all, or even the majority of the participants feel satisfied with the outcome. If someone can name one such situation I’ll be happy to reconsider that position.
Pretty much everything in the societies I've lived in is built on comparison and competition. At school, we're graded on a curve. Hobbies come with awards and rewards and rankings and goals built in. Sports are usually competitive, and if not, at least you're expected to keep track of how much you bench press, how many steps you take a day, or how far you can run in the Cooper test, or if you've done the double century yet. If you take up photography and join a camera club, pretty soon there'll be club competition where you'll see your photo being judged by a jury and then maybe get a little ribbon, or not. If you don't, nowadays you'll probably wind up putting your photos in some kind of social networking thing that has thumbs-up or stars or view counts.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Between Seeing and Making

Excited Photographer
Excited Photographer, Hong Kong, 2010

I've been taking pictures since I was very small. My first recollection of doing that was when I went to scout camp around the age of eight, and had a little plastic camera around for that. Some years later, my dad set up a darkroom in our bathroom and we developed some photos he had taken in San Diego Marine World. Seeing those bold shapes of orcas fade in on the photographic paper was magical. Soon after that, around the age of 11 or 12, I was making my own prints.

I've never studied photography formally, and the only art training I've had is a few years in after-school art classes as a teenager. Like with most things I do, I'm a dabbler.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Well that was surreal

Between December 24 and 25, 2010, Kyle Lovett of made some rather serious allegations about me on his blog. He has since retracted the posts making those claims, so I am doing the same for my response to them.

The full set of materials around this drama, including the previous version of this post, is available upon request.

Redacted on Dec 25, 2010, 22:15 EET.


The Year of our Lord 2010 looks all set for a rockin' finish, on the Buddhadrama front anyway. Not that there's been any serious shortage of it earlier on, between the Bill Schwartz-Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo/Alyce Zeoli-Waylon Lewis battle of the titan(ic ego)s,1 Wilborg2 popping up with their Green Memes and Lower Quadrants organizing webinars involving a broad range of highly-paid gurus left and right but mostly right, and any amount of fragile egos trading bitchslaps couched in ever-so-polite covert-aggressive language (usually) or bacon-flavored macho chest-beating (sometimes).

Oh, and there was that little affair of Eido Tai Shimano handing out kensho for handjobs. For forty years or thereabouts. Still roshi-ing along, I hear.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Solstice, Haikko, 2010

It's that time of the year again. The days will start to get longer, and 2011 will roll along presently. A little navel-gazing can't do much harm, and this being a blog, here's to looking back on the year from the point of view of PrimeJunta, my net.persona.

My main net.activity has been this. Blogging. This blog is now over a year old, which is a good deal longer than my last attempt. I think it's because I left the name and intention of the blog deliberately vague. In the first attempt, I wanted to restrict my blogging to politics, under the assumption that there are people who are interested what I have to say about that, and it'd be polite to them to blog about stuff that interests them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The breaking of the ancient Western code


Mauer, Berlin, 2010

We love to look for stability. There's always some ideal past state when things stayed where they were put. Perhaps it's the Roman Empire, or the 1950's, or the Victorian era, or China, depending on your inclinations. Utopias are imaginary futures where things stay where they're put too. Dystopias, also. The world order George Orwell imagined in 1984 was nothing if not unshakably stable, as is The Brave New World, Iain M. Banks's Culture or Plato's Republic.
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and St Paul
I've seen the future, brother:
it is murder.
The funny thing about those stable states is that when you look for them, they go away. At one time, I studied history fairly seriously, and I still do some occasional reading into it. I was struck by the way those stable orders turned out to be anything but, when you zoomed in and looked at what was actually happening.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Things I Find Disturbing


Earthenware, Hong Kong, 2010

People who try too hard to impress
People who try too hard to entertain
People who try too hard to be liked
People who try too hard to get laughs
People who play to the crowd
Affected words
Using the paramitas as punctuation
Using names of foreign gestures as punctuation
Bragging about your practice
Showing off your tattoos
Using your Dharma name as a handle unless you're a monk or a teacher
Constantly praising your teacher
Bringing up chopping wood
Bringing up carrying water
Bringing up washing your bowl
Bringing up the laundry
When you want to meditate, just meditate
Not saying what you think
Too many disclaimers
Apologizing for your opinions
Belittling yourself
Conspiracy theories
Always banging on the same drum
Gratuitous appeals to freedom of speech
Gratuitous appeals to lineage
Too much tweeting

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In Praise of Big Government

Architecture of Power
Architecture of Power, Hong Kong, 2010

Government isn't looking too spiffy lately.

The cleanup of the great financial crisis of 2008 has people rioting in the streets in Greece and Italy, with Spaniards and Irish not much more cheerful. Germans are bitter about footing the bill. The USA appears unable to pull out of its imperial death spiral. Ethnic riots are simmering in Moscow. And, of course, the documents released to and by Wikileaks are making the whole exercise look rather ridiculous—with the thuggish overreaction of supposedly democratic and law-based governments around the world not exactly helping.

It's tempting to give an ear to your inner Reagan, and decide that government itself is the problem. This would be a grave mistake. Small government almost invariably means bad government, and bad government is bad for everybody.

Rule of law is an expensive, cumbersome, and tedious undertaking. You need a body of law that's coherent and understandable enough to be workable. You need a legislative process that's transparent and participatory enough to make the laws adaptable to a changing world while keeping them in touch with generally accepted ideas of right and wrong. You need a multi-tiered court system with due process and right of appeal. You need a civil service that's big enough and capable enough to apply political decisions. You need oversight for that civil service. You need a police force that's big enough and capable enough to enforce laws and keep order. And you need the whole shebang to function at a level of corruption that's low enough not to completely subvert the process.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Zen Master Ryōkan

Yin/Yang, Hong Kong, 2010

Zen Master Ryōkan is a wildly popular character in Japan, but, I think, less well-known in my neck of the woods. I first came across him in a somewhat animated Net discussion, where someone quoted his note-to-self about how (not) to comport yourself in conversation. It seemed so fresh, wise, and to the point that it stuck with me.
Some things I find disturbing:
People who talk too much
People who talk too fast
Boisterous speech
People who talk to themselves
Gratuitous remarks
Flowery speech
People who never learn
People who are two-faced
People who start to speak before others have finished
Inappropriate remarks
Lecturing others about losing their tempers
Lecturing others when you lose your temper
People who make a fuss over nothing
Exposing things people wish to conceal
Playing the fool
Answering people without understanding what they've told you
Words spoken in passing
Fight stories
Political scuttlebutt
People who swindle children
People who make children worldly-wise
People who like to use words they don't understand
Miracle stories
Bewailing things that can't be helped
If something trivial is said, just ignore it
It's not easy to be a good listener

Friday, December 10, 2010

Quick on the Draw: Impressions of µ4/3

They Also Chimp In Hong Kong
They Also Chimp In Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2010 (Panasonic GF1 with 20/1.7)

I recently sold my Canon EOS system. I had gotten lazier and pocket cameras had gotten better to the point that the balance had tipped, and I was no longer carrying it where the pictures are. The pocket camera—a Canon S90—got the picture in the box just about as well as the big camera.

The picture quality was a pretty big step down. The tiny zoom on the S90 is no match for a prime on the 5D, and the tiny sensor doesn't have the snap of a big one either. I also missed the lack of control over depth of field. I never was a bokeh freak, but I do like a bit of separation between the subject and the background from time to time.

I've been shooting with a Panasonic GF1 and the 20/1.7 pancake for a few weeks now, during my trip to Hong Kong and Australia. I also bought a Leica M adapter so I can use the Summicron 40/2.0 from my CL on it for the relatively infrequent occasions I want a short tele. While the combination isn't perfect (what is?), it has exceeded my expectations in most ways.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Zen of Jet Lag

The Girl and the City
The Girl and the City, Hong Kong, 2010

Home again, 36 hours late, and with a couple of airlines and airports I didn't intend to visit on my itinerary.

This blog has been a bit quiet lately. That's because I've been traveling. My wife was invited to a couple of conferences in Brisbane and Sydney, and I went along as prince consort. I also happen to have a friend and colleague who telecommutes from Sydney, so I fit in a week of work there too, which made the costs a bit more bearable. I think my boss got a pretty good deal out of it too; we got a fair bit of stuff done that would've been hard to do over the phone or chat.

We also fit in a couple of days in Hong Kong on the way.

I didn't do much sitting Zen practice while on the road. I did do a quite a bit of other kinds of practice, though, and I find that Zen has pretty radically transformed my experience of intercontinental travel—especially the occasional unexpected annoyances that come with it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

In Love with Capitalism

CHANGE, Hong Kong, 2010

Hong Kong makes you want to love capitalism. There is an extraordinary vibrancy about it. Nearly seven million people crammed into high-rises that seem to go up forever, spilling onto the sidewalks, zooming around in red Japanese-made taxis, crowding into the MTR trains, eating yum cha in cavernous diners where dim sum is served straight from the kitchen with an impersonal, cool efficiency.

Everything is organized for maximum throughput. Physical barriers and signs are in place to channel those huge crowds where they need to go. From the time our plane's wheels touched down on the tarmac of Hong Kong International to sitting down on the bed in the minuscule room of Hotel Benito in Kowloon took less than an hour and a half. That was just the beginning.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sacred Space

Berliner Currywurst at Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche
Berliner Currywurst at Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, Berlin, 2010

I had an interesting conversation with my wife the other day. "Doesn't it bother you that the forms of Zen are so Japanese?" she asked. It doesn't. One reason is that I've always had a liking for Japanese esthetics. There are other reasons, though, and they're what led to the conversation.

Human beings are rather a peculiar species in many ways. We're at the same time extremely social, and extremely territorial. We spend an incredible amount of effort on dividing space into zones. Some zones are designated "public." Others are designated "private" to any of a near-infinity of levels, from spaces like movie theaters or malls at one end of the continuum to bedrooms and missile defense bunkers at the other. Some of the dividing lines are physical and visible; others are subtler cues that we just agree to respect. What we think of as space is very much an artifact of this process of division and re-division.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Retreat Afterglow

October Sunset
October Sunset, Helsinki, 2010

Last weekend's Zen retreat had some quite interesting after-effects. My general mental state this week has been rather different than usual. That has mostly—although not quite completely—faded by now, which is a shame, because I liked it.

This week at work should have been somewhat upsetting and definitely stressful. There have been some changes that are not altogether pleasant, some tasks that are not particularly exciting or interesting, and a lot of interruptions coming from all directions. Normally, I would be a wreck by now; stressed out of my skull, irritated, surly, and generally not much fun at all.

We're participating in a research project that requires us to assess our stress levels for each day, and my check mark was at "Much lower than usual" all week, despite all the stuff going on. Now, I'm feeling peaceful if looking forward to a good night's sleep and a quiet weekend.

Monday, November 1, 2010

My second Zen retreat

End of October
End of October, Pernaja, October 30, 2010

I spent last weekend doing nothing, as well as I was able. There were about 35 of us, all doing nothing together. It was rather wonderful.

To make it more interesting, the place we were doing nothing in had a water shortage. It's not connected to the municipal water supply. Instead, it has two wells, which were running dry, because there hasn't been all that much rain this autumn. So, as Timo, one of the two zendo leaders put it, we had the rare privilege of practicing mindfulness in not wasting a single drop. We were rather smelly come Sunday, but there was some water left for a sauna. That was nice.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I Don't Want Stuff, Except the Stuff I Want

Crocs, Nice, 2010

There was an article in today's Helsingin Sanomat (that's the big Finnish daily) about luxury cars. It was slightly unusual in that it wasn't your usual drooling over the latest Mercedes; instead, it was about the people who own, or want, luxury cars, why they want them, and what they mean for them. It mentioned a professor who has a factory-fresh Porsche in his yard, but never drives it; instead, whenever he's feeling blue, he just goes and sits in it for a bit, starts the engine, and listens to its comforting rumble.

Luxury cars are crystallized craving. Nothing is ever enough; there's always another one to desire, as the one you own becomes the new normal. Even if you were to take the Maybach treatment, spending a million euros on a car, decorated with rare tropical hardwoods and the softest leather to your personal specifications, there would be a new model next year, or that oil-sheikh's diamond-encrusted Rolls Royce to envy.
Were there a mountain all made of gold, doubled that would not be enough to satisfy a single man: know this and live accordingly.
The Buddha

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Strange Affair of Homo Night

Ghost of the Cathedral
Ghost of the Cathedral, Helsinki, 2005

Something a bit unusual is going on in Finland.

We have a state church. Two, actually—the Evangelical Lutheran one and the Orthodox one. About 80% of the population are members of the Lutheran one. That makes it something of a Ministry of Ritual rather than your typical religious organization. The main practical implication of that status is taxation—the church's income comes from the church tax, which is deducted automatically from the paychecks of all members, along with income tax. Companies also pay the church tax, even if no Christians are involved with them.

Finnish society is rather secularized. Most Finns have pretty vague ideas about God, probably falling pretty near the apatheist position, if they ever really bother to think about it. They're only church members out of habit and tradition; getting baptized, confirmed, married in church, and buried with Christian ritual is the default option. Finland is also fairly liberal socially; about 20 years behind Sweden, for sure, but the general ethos is pretty permissive.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Zazen in the Marketplace

In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts
In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, Health and Beauty Fair, Helsinki, October 17, 2010

I spent about three hours at the Health and Beauty Fair today. The Helsinki Zen Center had a stand, and Ari, one of our sangha leaders, asked if I could mind the shop for a bit so he wouldn't have to stay there all weekend. When I asked what I was supposed to do, he said that there are a couple of zafus and zabutons there, and he thought it easiest to just sit there and do some kind of practice, and answer people's questions if they asked, which they didn't, mostly. "Just go there and be yourself." So there I was, sitting away for most of Sunday morning.

It was fun, and surprisingly good practice, too. The hubbub of the fair was not distracting; in fact, it kinda grounded me to the present and made it easier not to drift off. The knowledge that I was out in public and people would probably stare gave energy and alertness. Yet, to my surprise, I didn't feel nervous or self-conscious, and could keep my attention on the practice quite effectively. I did five roughly half-hour rounds all in all, with roughly five-minute breaks in between; I didn't use a timer, so I went over some of the time (I think the longest round was nearly 45 minutes, actually), and under some of the time.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Camera Musings

Havanna Pohjola
Havanna Pohjola, Helsinki, 2005

I sold my Canon EOS system. I am now without a "serious" camera for the first time since I bought a Canon T70 in Singapore in 1987. It feels weird, and I don't think this state of affairs will last very long.

I'm overall pretty happy with the Canon PowerShot S90 that I've been shooting with almost exclusively for the past year or so. However, I miss the snap of a really good lens, and the three-dimensionality a touch of depth-of-field control gives. However, I'm not ready to take on the inconvenience of carrying an SLR. I need something that I can slip into my shoulder bag.

I've been doing a bit of reading up on micro system cameras.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Obstacles to Practice

Rock Flames
Rock Flames, Helsinki, 2010

If you're geeky enough to start reading Buddhist philosophy, you'll quickly find that something called "obstacles" shows up pretty early. The Abhidharma—and related systems—contain meticulous taxonomies of obstacles, all derived from the three roots of the unbeneficial, craving, ill-will, and ignorance.

All that is very interesting, but a bit above my pay grade at the moment. Like most beginners, I think, I'm dealing with some rather simpler and more immediate obstacles. The kind that want to stop you from getting on the cushion in the first place.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Thoughts about rebirth

The Quick and the Dead
The Quick and the Dead, Helsinki, 2010

I've heard a few introductory lectures about Buddhism. One question that invariably comes up is something along the lines of "Uh, so, you guys believe in reincarnation, then?"

Buddhism has a reputation for being a rational religion—systematic, pragmatic, science-friendly, non-supernaturalistic, even intellectual. Perhaps for this reason, the concepts that appear, on the surface, to be supernaturalistic easily rise to the surface: karma and rebirth in particular.

Although I'm making some progress, I still don't quite get rebirth. However, over the past couple of years that I've done some serious thinking about Buddhism, I have been repeatedly struck by the way difficult and hard to digest concepts suddenly fall into place. Something that doesn't seem to make sense finds a context and clicks. It's there for a reason. Nowadays my default assumption about Buddhist stuff that doesn't appear to make sense is that I don't understand what it means, so I kick the can down the road a lot. I've been reading bits and pieces from Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō this way, for example—some bits are very easy to get to grips with; other bits don't make any sense at all, but might suddenly do so later.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Zazen Is Good for Nothing?

Sunset over Sea
Sunset over Sea, Helsinki, October 1, 2010

Kodo Sawaki Roshi is a pretty well-known Soto Zen teacher. Many contemporary Zen teachers in our neck o' the woods count him in their lineage. His best known saying is that zazen is good for nothing.

I'm sure that's true.

However, like all such truths, it's only true from a certain point of view. From some other points of view, zazen is clearly good for something. What's considered problematic is practicing Zen for what it's good for, rather that for what it's about.

Practicing Zen in order to cope with stuff is known in Zen circles as "bompu Zen." Most Zen teachers I've come across seem at least ambivalent about it; either they reject it altogether (like Sawaki Roshi in his "good for nothing" quote), or they make a point of saying that even though bompu Zen is all well and good, that's really not the point of Zen, and it can become a major obstacle for that which is the point of Zen, whatever that is.

The HZC is going to be at the Health and Beauty fair in another couple of weeks, so I guess we're not all that down on bompu Zen. I still think there's something delightfully out of place about it.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Zazenkai Notes: Twice a half-day is...?

After the Circus
After the Circus, Helsinki, October 2, 2010

It seems like there's a teacher visit every month these days, which is awesome. Kanja Sensei was here over the weekend to lead a zazenkai. It was slightly (but not much) lighter than the usual ones, to accommodate first-timers, and to let her catch her plane back to Sweden on Sunday. I missed the first block of sitting on Saturday due to a previous engagement, but was there for the two afternoon blocks, as well as the whole program today. We only did two blocks today, but they were four rounds each, plus there was a recitation, so it was a fairly solid bit of sitting.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers

Rinzai, by Hakuin Ekaku
Rinzai, by Hakuin Ekaku

Zen folklore is full of colorful characters doing outrageous stuff. Anyone spending even a little time around Zen will soon encounter the likes of Bodhidharma getting lippy with the Emperor of China, Rinzai cracking heads with his Dharma stick, Nansen cutting that poor cat in half, Tanka burning a temple's wooden Buddhas, Ikkyu waxing rhapsodic about the charms of prostitutes. In a way, the history of Zen is a history of tension between the creativity of maverick reformers, and the discipline of formal practice.

Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers by Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger presents a few of the better-known of these "Crazy Clouds"—Ikkyu's expression—in a series of short biographical essays, starting with Layman P'ang Yun from the golden age of Chinese Zen in the T'ang dynasty, through Rinzai, Bassui, Ikkyu, Bankei, and Hakuin, to our days and across the Pacific Ocean to America, with Nyogen Senzaki and Nakagawa Soen Roshi. Each essay starts with a quick sketch of historical background, presents the Zen master's biography, and finishes off with some notes on his personal teaching style and methods. In sequence, the essays trace one thread in the evolution of Zen as a living tradition from its early days in China to our time.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

If it's true, the Buddha said it

Tree Graffiti
Tree Graffiti, Berlin, 2010

One of my favorite Buddhist quips is the one in the title. I like it because it reverses the argument from authority that you quite often find in religious discourse, also including Buddhism.

The quip is actually an assertion of the form
If P, then Q.
However, the specific P and Q in it actually make it a reversal of another assertion, which is a bit like
If Bubba said it, then it's true.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Camera Lust

Leica CL
Leica CL.

I've put my Canon EOS system on the block. If you're in Finland and want a piece of it, you'll find it here.1 It's a very good system. I spent the better part of ten years building it, and it has served me well.

I haven't given up on photography. Thing is, both cameras and my way of taking pictures have evolved over the years. Digital compact cameras have reached a point where I can get acceptable quality out of them hand-held in relatively low light, and they perform well enough to get the picture in the box. I've become more spontaneous and perhaps less ambitious with my photography. I take pictures of stuff that catches my eye, and that's it.

The balance has shifted to the point that the portability and low intimidation factor of a compact are more important for me than the shootability, versatility, and image quality of a dSLR. I do very much miss the snap a big sensor or film frame and sharp, bright prime give my pictures. Despite that, my very nice camera system has been sleeping in a bag on my shelf.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dedication of Merit

Cleaning Carpets for Easter
Cleaning Carpets for Easter, Jbeil, Lebanon, 2009

Religions have their little secret handshakes. In Lebanon, for example, everybody peppers their language with various expressions that include God—"subhan Allah, ya Allah!, insh'Allah, hamd'illah," and so on. However, only Muslims will greet you with a "Salaam aleikum," to which the proper response is "wa aleikum assalaam, wa rahmatullah wa barakati," which says that you're in the club too. A Christian would probably reply just with a "Marhaba."

Buddhists—at least online ones—have their little flourishes too. For some reason, I find them a bit affected, sometimes even irritating. You know, things like "gassho" and _/|\_ and "metta" and referring to people as "sentient beings" and wishing "liberation" on them. Perhaps they only give me a rash because I don't feel like a fully-credentialed member of the club yet. Or perhaps they really are affected. Some people do manage to wear them well, but they're a pretty small minority.

One little flourish that has particularly irritated me—probably because it sounds similar to "I'm praying for you" or what not, which often has an awfully covert-aggressive, sanctimonious air—is dedication of merit. See, in Mahayana Buddhism we're not supposed to be practicing for our own sake, but in order to liberate all beings. There's a traditional belief that practice produces merit—kusala karma—that will mature as spiritual growth or, depending on your metaphysicals, a felicitious rebirth. However, this is only supposed to work if we practice selflessly. Otherwise, no merit, and the whole thing is wasted.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hezbollah and Socially Engaged Buddhism

posing with hezbollah flag
Photo by Paul Keller, some rights reserved.
Posing with Hezbollah flag, Khiam, Lebanon, 2007.

The system stinks, as Robert Aitken Roshi liked to put it.

We now possess the productive capacity to eradicate hunger, most infectious diseases, and provide everyone on the planet with the basic necessities, a basic education, and basic healthcare. We have the technology to do that sustainably. Yet billions continue to scrape by at a subsistence level. Hundreds of millions are illiterate. We're using up natural resources at nearly double the sustainable rate. A small minority of us live lives of luxury—including yours truly—and a tiny, tiny fraction become obscenely rich.

"Whoever dies with the most stuff, wins" is a pretty sorry excuse of a foundation for society. Buddhists might have some ideas about how to improve that.

It's clear that there is a case for change. Nobody can do that alone. Change can only happen socially. For that to happen, two things are needed: a degree of consensus, and a degree of organization. Religious groups provide both. Socially engaged religion is a natural development. It would be surprising if this never happened with Buddhism.

When considering the question of socially engaged Buddhism, it might be worthwhile to look at a highly successful example of socially engaged religion.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Zazenkai Notes: Jedi Robes and Spinning Wheels

Cyclone Closing
Cyclone Closing, Helsinki, today.

The trouble with a really good zazenkai is that it makes zazenkais that aren't as good feel like they kinda suck. Today's wasn't as good as my Zen Weekend a couple of weeks ago.

Which isn't to say that it was a waste of time or anything. I just had a lot of stuff churning around, and spent most of the time spinning donuts, and didn't manage to get as far or as deep as I've been before. Then again, some of that stuff was pretty interesting (might be at least a blog post or two in them), so that didn't altogether go to waste.

But I did end up practicing returning my attention to the practice a lot more than I practiced holding it there, and I didn't ever get past that point.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The 'Svaha!' Fallacy

Red sunset
Red sunset, Helsinki, 2006

I've occasionally run into a particular problem when debating stuff with Buddhists. I've dubbed it the "Svaha!" fallacy. It has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of not only Buddhist philosophy, but the basis of philosophy itself: confusion between the phenomenological and the metaphysical.

A metaphysical philosophy purports to deal with reality "as it really is." It looks for universal, permanent truths, immutable laws, and things that 'really exist.' We're natural metaphysicians: it rarely occurs to us to question whether something right in front of us 'exists' or 'is real,' or wonder how it exists. Instead, we tend to treat things as existent, permanent, and distinct by default. It is only through a certain amount of reflection that the flaws in this approach become apparent. A great deal of ink has been spilled in attempts to resolve these problems without stepping out of the metaphysical mode of thinking. Plato is the quintessential metaphysician. Other notable metaphysicians include Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Augustine of Hippo.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fun day at the zendo

Zazen at Helsinki Zen Center
Zazen at Helsinki Zen Center, Helsinki, 2010

I just got back from my Thursday zazen at the zendo. Olli, one of our senior instructors, had just been given authorization to give daisan. He seemed a bit flustered about it, plus he was in a hurry to set up the daisan room, so things started out a bit excited.

We had just started the second round, and he rang the daisan bell, and the first in line duly marched in. Then the fire bell in the neighboring building went off.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The God-Shaped Hole

Arles Church Light
Arles Church Light, France, 2008

When I walked into Helsinki Zen Center's zazen introduction a little over a year ago, the instructor asked why each of us found ourselves there. "I'm healthy, I'm married to the woman I love deeply, I have a reasonably interesting job with colleagues I like to work with and that gives me enough money that I don't need to fret about it much, I live in a nice little apartment in exactly the part of town where I want to live, and dammit, I'm still dissatisfied," I answered, "and I don't think a new computer will change that."

I would no longer say that. I am no longer dissatisfied, at least not in the way I described then.

I did buy the computer, though. It is nice, even though it occasionally locks up when waking up from sleep. I do that too, sometimes.

In fact, I'm… happy. (Shh, don't jinx it.) Not ecstatically jumping-with-joy happy, mind; just feeling pretty relaxed about it all. "Hey, rain smells good, doesn't it?"

Monday, September 6, 2010

Kōans of the Christ

Composition with Bears, Church, and Red Jacket
Composition with Bears, Church, and Red Jacket, Helsinki, 2010

I've always rolled my eyes at the "Jesus was a Buddhist" crowd. There are people out there arguing that during the gap in the Gospels, the Christ traveled to India, became a Buddhist monk, and the came back to Palestine to preach. There are so many things wrong with that story that I'm not going to even start on them. Jesus wasn't a Buddhist. He was something else.

I've lately revisited some of the Gnostic gospels discovered with the Nag Hammadi documents. The Gospel of Thomas is my favorite. It's a short text, in question-and-answer format, and it reads disconcertingly like a kōan collection.
Jesus said to his disciples, "Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like."
Simon Peter said to him, "You are like a righteous angel."
Matthew said to him, "You are like a wise philosopher."
Thomas said to him, "Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like."
Jesus said, "I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out."
And he took him and withdrew and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, "What did Jesus say to you?"
Thomas said to them, "If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up."
The Gospel according to Thomas, 13

Saturday, September 4, 2010

More Musings on Communism

Postcard from an Alternate Future
Postcard from an Alternate Future, Berlin, 2010

This post builds on my earlier musings about Communism and the batch of recent neo-Trotskyite science fiction and fantasy authors.

The central problem of Communist utopia is resource allocation. Not so much production, I think. We people tend to like to produce. As a society, we spend incredible amounts of resources trying to turn everyone into passive consumers on the one hand, and obedient wage slaves on the other, yet even so, lots of us produce stuff simply because we want to.

Take this blog, for example. In economic terms, it is a "good." It has a certain amount of "utility," because a few people like to "consume" it. Yet, bafflingly from the point of view of most economic models, I "produce" it simply because I want to. I would continue to "produce" it, even subtly altered, if nobody else wanted to "consume" it. My main incentives to produce it are the pleasure I derive from the act of producing it, and the effect it has on clarifying my own thoughts about any number of things.1

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mindfulness is not a Get out of Hell Free Card

Mindful Smoking
Mindful Smoking, Jbeil, Lebanon, 2005

I have an aversion for buzzwords. At work, it's "cloud computing" nowadays. Everything has to be "in the cloud" whether it makes sense or not, and whether it's really the case or not. These buzzwords irritate me because usually the original concept is a meaningful and useful one, but turning it into a buzzword robs it of meaning; makes it just a vague synonym of "something desirable somewhere in that direction."

One of the Buddhist buzzwords that grates on me is "mindfulness." The original concept is highly useful, and I think it means something like this:
Mindfulness means intentionally cultivating an awareness of the situation, one's actions in the situation, one's motivational dispositions, and the consequences of one's actions.
What gets to me is when people turn mindfulness into a "get out of hell free" card – as in "mindful drinking" or "mindful smoking." Blake Wilson had a very entertaining rant about this on Elephant Journal, with links to a couple of examples.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Marxism Reinvented

Marx, Engels, Tele-Spargel
Marx, Engels, Tele-Spargel, Berlin, 2010

As a kid and through my teens, I read a great deal of science fiction. I started with the classics and worked my way forward from there – Isaac Asimov, A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Cyril Kornbluth, Stanislaw Lem, and so on and so forth. Just about when I finished with the good stuff up to the 1960's and early 1970's, the cyberpunk movement hit, and I got a whole bunch of exciting new stuff to read. William Gibson's early work is still very high on my list of favorites.

Then I ran out of interesting sci-fi to read, for a quite a long time, it seemed.

Until a few years ago, that is. A friend of mine handed me a book by one Iain M. Banks, and I quite liked it – space opera with a twist. Then I discovered Ken MacLeod, Hal Duncan, and China Miéville. Suddenly a genre that always seems to regress into cliché felt new and fresh and exciting again.

Each of these writers has a strong, unique voice. They have major differences of opinion and world-view; for example, Iain M. Banks is a utopian transhumanist, while Ken MacLeod is a dystopian genuinely scared of what's going to happen if/when we manage to build a self-aware computer.

There are some things they have in common, though. For example, they're unapologetic, blood-red Marxists, mostly of the Trotskyite persuasion.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Zazenkai Notes: My Zen Weekend

Sensei Sante Poromaa
Sensei Sante Poromaa, Helsinki, August 28, 2010

Looks the part, doesn't he?

I got a pretty solid dose of Zen this weekend. We had a sangha meeting on Thursday, open house on Friday night for the Night of the Arts, a near-impromptu zazenkai with Sante Sensei on Saturday, and a regularly scheduled zazenkai on Sunday. I missed the third block of sitting on Saturday, because we had some family and friends over for dinner, and I would've felt bad about leaving my wife to do the cooking while I'm busy pursuing my Spiritual Quest. So I had cooking practice, eating practice, and conversation practice instead, and that was quite OK too.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Zen Moments

Gothic Rose
Gothic Rose, Helsinki, 2005

Since I started to practice zazen a bit over a year ago, I've come to appreciate little experiences that I've labeled "Zen moments." Mostly they're just little moments when I suddenly notice all the stuff I usually filter out – the sound and feel of the wind, the smells, the hubbub on the street, the light, the feelings of the body, and so on. I don't even know if they have anything to do with Zen as such; perhaps I've always been having them. However, since starting to mess with Zen, I have been noticing them more. I do notice that I seem to happen on them more often if my practice is going well.

I don't think they have any huge, cosmic significance, but they're nice, and they brighten up my day whenever one happens. They're also very varied, as varied as, say, different flavors of food. Most of them are rather tiny, and the one I've had that involved a fairly spectacular emotional high was, I think, the least significant of all, because it wasn't really mine; it was borrowed. Perhaps it wasn't even a Zen moment at all, although I have mentally filed it under that heading. It was quite educational too, though, but in a different way.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Two Sons of Sindbad the Sailor

Gate of Emir Fakhreddin's Palace
Gate of Emir Fakhreddin's Palace, Beiteddine, Lebanon, 2003

During the time Maymun ibn al-Rashid was Caliph, there lived in Baghdad a merchant named Sindbad. In his youth, he had made seven great voyages, suffered great misfortunes, and come into great wealth. When his thirst for adventure was finally slaked, he had returned to his native city, invested the treasure he brought from his voyages wisely, and settled into a life of ease and comfort. He was no less blessed in arranging a suitable match for himself, and had many strong sons and beautiful daughters. He was fortunate indeed, ever thanking the One from whom all blessings flow for his good fortune, giving freely to the poor and opening his home to men of good character and rich in wisdom.

Of Sindbad's many sons, two were more dear to him than others. Their names were Abu Bahr and Abu Jabal. Abu Bahr was the elder of the two, in many ways like his father. Abu Jabal was the younger, and more like his mother Soria, Sindbad's favorite wife. Abu Bahr always had his eye on the horizon, hearing the call of the open sea, ever looking for new trade routes to open, and new captains for his father's ships sailing out from Basra. Abu Jabal was drawn to the great caravan routes to China and to Rome, as well as the streets, markets, and alleys of Baghdad itself. Yet both sons shared amply in their father's good character, ever remembering the source of all blessings and the place where they would once return.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Free Will

7 Mesi Ti Amo
7 Mesi Ti Amo, Milan, 2008

Metaphysicians love to yammer on about the question of free will. I run into it sometimes too. It gives me a stomach ache, and is just the kind of thing that makes me hate the whole exercise.

My first problem is that the whole concept falls apart when you look at it more closely. What do we even mean by "free will?" I'll offer a refinement that I'll try to stick to in this little piece of pontification:
The statement "I have free will" is synonymous with "Volition can affect action."
The problem is that volition is not easily separable from its causes nor its effects. Volitions affect actions, actions create habits and memories, habits and memories condition volitions, and all are features of the mind – cittas and cetasikas in Buddhist terms; clusters of axons firing in materialist terms. Saying that a volition affects an action is functionally the same thing as saying that one brain activity affects another brain activity. This much, I think, is fairly uncontroversial.

Monday, August 16, 2010

On Authoritarianism, Democracy, and Zen

World Peace, Or Else
World Peace, Or Else, Helsinki, 2007

We humans like to organize ourselves into communities. Most of those communities are relatively short-lived; they last perhaps a few years, or at most a generation or so. A few are self-renewing. Institutions emerge and persist even as the people making up the community come and go. Traditions crystallize and perpetuate themselves. The community acquires a set of characteristics with some illusion of permanence and solidity, and a sense of continuity appears, sometimes spanning generations, centuries, even millennia.

These self-perpetuating communities are rare, and the characteristics that allow them to perpetuate themselves are, I believe, pretty poorly understood – even by social scientists making a living at trying to understand those characteristics. They're also resistant to attempts at modification. These attempts either come to nothing, have a very limited impact, or end up destroying something critical to the community that allowed it to renew itself, and thereby the community itself.

This is why large-scale, high-speed social engineering attempts have so often had such tragic and unforeseen results, whether the intent is to create a workers' paradise or a liberal democracy. Liquidating the bourgeoisie and the large landholders had all kinds of unforeseen and unwanted consequences; removing the dictator let out all kinds of demons that his power had kept caged.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Salt Bonds and Food Taboos

Berliner Currywurst at Ku'damm 195
Berliner Currywurst at Ku'damm 195, Berlin, 2010

Bedouin Arabs have a pretty cool tradition related to food. It's called the salt bond. If you share your meal with someone, you become responsible for his welfare for three days – the time it takes for the salt from that meal to pass from his system. There are all kinds of ancillary traditions related to the salt bond. For example, if you approach a Bedouin camp, you will be invited to share a meal – and if you refuse, it's a signal that your intentions are hostile. That's bad news.

This speaks to something really fundamental to us as social mammals. Social mammals share their food with kin and friends, and refuse food to enemies. We grow close to people we eat with, and refusing someone's food or drink distances us from them. This shouldn't be news to anyone; for example, the erosion of family bonds has been partly attributed to families no longer dining together due to the pressures of work and the frantic pace of life.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

More on Mental Health, Meditation, and Risk Management

The Wild Bunch
The Wild Bunch, Nice, 2010

I had an interesting conversation with Teemu Kangas in the comments thread of my musings on spiritual practice and mental health. He also linked to a study on extreme mental states in meditation practitioners, and to a blog by meditators with serious mental health issues. So I got to thinking about this a bit more.

This is a risk management problem.

Intensive meditation practices do have risks. From the bit of reading that I've done, these risks do not appear to be too extreme – incidence of psychosis among meditators appears to be lower than among the general population, and while many if not most people practicing intensive meditation do experience "nonordinary states of consciousness,"1 most handle these states perfectly well. But the risks are there; people have suffered very serious breakdowns as a result of intensive meditation.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Reading Vasubandhu: Madhyānta-vibhāga-bhāṣya (Part 1)

Found Ensō on Asphalt
Found Ensō on Asphalt, Helsinki, 2010

This is part of a series chronicling my encounters with Vasubandhu, the fourth-century philosopher who co-founded the Yogācāra school of Buddhism with his half-brother, Asaṅga. As usual, don't believe a word of what I'm saying and check it out for yourself instead, if you're really interested.

Vasubandhu's Madhyānta-vibhāga-bhāṣya, or Commentary on the Separation of the Middle from the Extremes, is a lot of fun to study. It's teaching me a whole new way to read. Normally, I wolf down books; it's not uncommon for me to finish a 500-page volume in one or two sittings. With this Commentary, that just doesn't fly. It's like every sentence is a little puzzle-box that starts out looking completely nonsensical, but when you pick at it a bit, it eventually unfolds and reveals a thought, clear as a little dewdrop. Some of those thoughts evoke an "Okay, I get it;" others are more like "Hey, that's pretty neat," and yet others are "Whoa, dude, that's deep."

But it's slow going.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A note to readers

I'm seeing a pretty big traffic spike from Finland and Sweden just now (by the very low standards of this blog anyway), presumably thanks to Ari's kind words about my blog on the Zennet mailing list.

I'd just like to remind any new visitors that I'm really new to this whole Zen show, with only about a year of practice, so please, please don't take any of this stuff too seriously. They're my notes to myself as I'm exploring some strange, new, fascinating, and occasionally scary territory, and I really, truly, don't know what the hey I'm talking about, most of the time.

So thanks for stopping by, and it makes me happy if you've found something amusing, interesting, or even a nice pic here, but the odds are that I should be listening to what you have to say, not vice versa.

I'm not being coy, I mean this.

That is all.

Mental Health and Spiritual Practice

Welcome to Ultima Thule
Welcome to Ultima Thule, Helsinki, 2005

Recently, I found out that the priest who married us ten years ago is Finland's only officially certified exorcist. I thought that was kinda cool. Sort of like having a bit part in a movie. I have a hard time taking exorcists seriously, which is a mistake, because he does, and the people who come to him for what he does do too.

As miraculous as modern medicine is, it hasn't found a cure for madness. When somebody's suffering and delusions cross the lines of what's socially acceptable, we have pills and psychotherapy and, in extreme cases, confinement. They can help people get over psychotic episodes and manage them, stop people from physically harming themselves or each other, and even restore enough of a semblance of order to let the troubled individual function in society more or less normally. We know a good bit about brain chemistry, neurotransmitters, symptoms, and what have you. This is valuable and important.

However, I don't think anybody really knows what 'schizophrenia' or 'bipolar disorder' or 'schizoaffective disorder' really is; where it comes from, or what "curing" it would actually mean.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

How To Get Enlightened

Fresh Peach and Apricot Tart in Chestnut Flour Crust
Fresh Peach and Apricot Tart in Chestnut Flour Crust, France, 2010

Me: Hi guys. How do I get enlightened?
Theravadin: I'm glad you asked! It's simple. (You do have testicles, right? Good. Can't get enlightened without testicles. Not that you'll be using them for anything.) All you have to do is see through the illusion of duality. Here's a handy little manual with a set of exercises that'll get you started (in Pali, don't worry, you'll pick it up in no time, just start with "Buddho dhammaṃ rakkhati" and take it from there), with a nice set of tests you can take to see exactly at what stage you are, and what you need to do to get to your next goal. Just follow the instructions, do, oh, one or two three-month retreats a year, and you'll get stream-entry in no time. Or, well, ten years, tops. From there on out, it takes care of itself, more or less. I can refer you to a couple of good temples situated in insalubrious jungles in a variety of poorly-governed countries! Oh, and, here's another handy little book that'll tell you how to behave.
Me: Thanks, I guess… Pali, huh?
Soto: What are these "goals" you speak of? There is no "goal." There are no "stages." Just sit and pay attention.
Me: Uh… pay attention to what?
Soto: Just… pay attention.
Rinzai: "Just pay attention." Bah. How can you expect a newbie to do that? You gotta learn to walk before you can run. First, count your breaths. Start by breathing out with "oooooooone," and breathing in with "twooooooo," until you get to ten, and you start over. Once you can do that for a few rounds, get back to me and I'll give you a kōan. Once you're done with a couple of hundred of those, THEN you can "just pay attention."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Zazen Isn't Boring

Miniature Landscape with Moss
Miniature Landscape with Moss, Muonio, Finland, 2010

About a year ago when I started to do this Zen thing and reading about it, several people told me that zazen is really boring. Brad Warner, for example. "I guarantee you'll be bored," he said in one of his zazen invitations. I think some of the instructors at the Helsinki Zen Center intimated something to that effect as well. Uku of Dogen Sangha Finland bangs on about it too. Perhaps it's a DSI thing. Or perhaps they just say it to encourage people to stick with it until they figure out what it is and it stops being boring.

I think they're wrong.

Sitting on a cushion, staring at the wall, waiting for the bell to ring is dead boring. It's just like sitting on an empty bus-stop waiting for the bus, occasionally wondering if you missed it, or if there's maybe a strike going on and it's not going to show up at all. However, I'm pretty sure that's not zazen. It's just sitting on a cushion, staring at the wall, waiting for the bell to ring, being bored, and occasionally very mildly entertained by trains of thought or daydreaming, or hurting with various types of pain.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Hardcore Arahant: Daniel Ingram's Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha

At Harissa
Novice at Harissa, Saydat Lubnan, Lebanon, 2005

There's been a bit of a flap over the Hardcore Dharma movement lately. I got curious and checked out the book that started it all, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, (PDF) by Daniel Ingram, Arahant.

Since he has the cheek to call himself an Arahant, I guess he shouldn't have anything against a complete newbie to the business having the cheek to review his book. So, in my usual style of writing about stuff about which I'm completely clueless, here goes.

The short version

It's a brilliant book. If you're at all interested in meditation, quit wasting your time reading this stupid blog and go read it instead. Just ignore the occasional chest-beating about exactly how profound the ideas in it are, and how accomplished is the author. That's just style. Focus on the substance. There's a lot of it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What about the Vinaya Pitaka?

Wine Tasting Sister
Wine Tasting Sister, Kefraya, Lebanon, 2003

Nathan at Dangerous Harvests has an excellent post about the problems in Buddhist sanghas that have recently come to light. He points out that there appears to be a kind of naiveté about group dynamics in them—it's all about individual practice and responsibility, or some kind of vague institutional oversight, with Brad Warner who sees Zen teachers as artists who should be completely free agents in one corner, and James Ford who wants official certification and oversight in the other.

Weird shit goes down in groups, and extremely weird shit can go down in "spiritual communities" (for want of a better expression). At worst, such groups can degenerate into death cults. Buddhism isn't immune—a Buddhist cult is responsible for the only terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction that have yet happened, after all. Of course, that very rarely happens, but it's still a possibility: religious practice is dangerous stuff, even more so than punk rock or football.

The thing is, there's a massive body of knowledge about precisely group dynamics in spiritual communities right in the middle of the Buddhist tradition. It's so important that it's one of the three "baskets" in the original Pāli Canon. The Vinaya Pitaka.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Communities, Identities and Buddhist Bloggers

Self Portrait In Curved Window With Passers-By
Self Portrait in Curved Window with Passers-by, Helsinki, 2007

For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about identity lately. Or, perhaps, identities—those self-portraits we like to paint for all kinds of situations. I have a work identity, a husband identity, a blogger identity, a national identity, a cultural identity, a sexual identity, a Zen identity, a political identity, a Facebook identity, and so on and so forth, I can't even remember all of them.

These identities are the building-blocks we use to create communities. Some of the communities are "real" in the sense that we have some kind of personal contact with everybody who is part of the community. Others are imagined—we only form a community because all of us in it believe we share in whatever the community has selected as its distinguishing characteristic. These run the gamut from small, loose groups of maybe a few score people (like the sangha where I practice—we are a community, although I haven't met everyone who's part of it) to supra-national super-identities, such as the slowly emerging "European" identity vaguely oriented around the cultural-political-ideological concept of the European Union, or the loose collection of values and ideas underlying that political edifice.

Whenever two people meet, identities will get constructed. Context determines which identity comes to the fore. At the office, we'll exchange business cards, and I'll have my software expert identity on show. On a blog somewhere, I'll be wearing my Buddhist blogger identity. Even people who post anonymously on Internet forums are creating identities, by the very fact of being anonymous, and by their choice of words and style. Doing without an identity is incredibly difficult; so difficult that someone had to invent a whole damn religion about it—that, among other things, is what "transcending subject-apprehender and object-apprehended" is all about.