Sunday, February 28, 2010

Another month, another zazenkai

Fishing Through Ice In Frozen Mist
Fishing Through Ice In Frozen Mist, Helsinki, 2010

This one went OK. Better than the last one, anyway. I managed to practice – more or less – most of the time, and only got into a bad posture during one round of zazen, which caused my right hip to scream bloody murder again. Other than that, I hurt a good deal less than on the previous ones.

Went to daisan again. It was nice. Got some advice about my practice in ice-hockey metaphors which flew right past me, but I think I got the intent anyway. (Maybe I should start following some sports one of these days.)

Next up is a weekend retreat in another couple of weeks, assuming they got my registration and accepted me.

My practice hasn't been all that great lately, actually, but I think I found it again. Ups and downs are all a part of it, or so I've heard tell...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Foamy the Squirrel on Western Zen

A friend of mine introduced me to Foamy the Squirrel. He just sent me a link to one of his latest rants. I thought it was funny enough to re-blog here.

No other commentary, it speaks for itself...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Kabuki, I will miss you

I just heard that Yoshiaki Takayama, the owner of what's probably the best Japanese restaurant in town, died of cancer at the age of 57. The restaurant Kabuki is a short walk from where I work. It was always full at lunchtime, but sometimes we made a reservation and went there anyway.

Kabuki is an unusual place. I've never been to Japan, but I have a feeling it's gotta be pretty much like corner restaurants there are like. It's quite small, not fancy at all, and has a no-nonsense simple and well-worn interior. One of the tables is on a tatami; the others have benches, in a concession to local sitting habits, I guess. Mr. Takayama was a huge Star Wars and ice hockey fan, which also showed -- there was a life-size cardboard Boba Fett against a wall, as well as a few ice hockey jerseys signed by the likes of Teemu Selänne.

He also has the rare distinction of having cooked for the Emperor of Japan -- although he was Crown Prince at the time. Crown Prince Akihito visited Finland, and the Japanese embassy had Kabuki handle the catering.

The sushi and sashimi at Kabuki were good, but probably not the best in town: there are a quite a few places where you can get good sushi here. What Kabuki did, though, was offer the full range of Japanese cuisine, and it did it really well -- clearly a cut above anything else available here, and as good as anything I've had abroad.

I didn't go all that often, but the passing of Kabuki has left a void. Even if someone else takes over, it won't be the same. You will be missed, Yoshiaki, and not only by your rock star and hockey champ regulars.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What do I believe?

Light In The Window 2
Light In The Window, Helsinki, 2007

The question of belief and faith in connection with Buddhism pops up every once and again. A friend of mine asked how I can practice a religion when I'm sorely lacking in belief in the supernatural, and fundamentally a rationalist in my worldview. I've listened to or read a couple of really impressive teishos on the role of faith in Zen. Some people I've met in the Buddhoblogosphere appear to hold "right beliefs" in very high regard. I'm still rather confused about the whole mess, but some of it is starting to make some kind of sense.

NellaLou made a nice distinction between belief and faith in a conversation I had with her on her blog. By that distinction, belief simply means that you think some proposition is true, with some reasonable degree of confidence, whereas faith is about acting as if some proposition is true, even though you don't have the reasonable degree of confidence in it that you'd actually really believe in it. (And blind faith is believing some proposition is true simply because someone says so.)

That distinction suddenly made a lot of those teishos make sense.

Not having experienced awakening, I cannot know whether I'm capable of experiencing it. In fact, I can't even know what it is, any more than someone who's blind can know what the color red is. In other words, by the above definition, I do not believe that I can experience awakening. (Nor do I believe that I can't. The jury is out.)

However, if I don't practice as if I believed that I, too, am capable of awakening to my true nature, whatever that may mean, I would be seriously impeding my practice. Instead of sitting, I'd be wondering whether I'm worthy, whether I'm doing it right, and so on and so forth. So, in order to practice effectively, I have to have faith that I, too, can awaken to my true nature, despite the fact that the jury is out, and the fact that I really have fundamentally no idea what awakening to my true nature really is, beyond that I think it's something worth striving for.

So, in NellaLou's terms, I don't believe in awakening to my true self, not even understanding what it means, but I do have faith in it.

In a more conventional sense, what do I believe about Buddhism, then?

First off, I believe that my conventional beliefs are fundamentally unimportant. It really doesn't make any difference to my practice if it turned out that Siddhattha Gotama was a drunken lecher like Chögyam Trungpa, or completely mythical, or just some fundamentally ordinary bloke with perhaps a few special talents in some areas and some bright ideas. What matters is what I do and how I do it, and, of course, the support and guidance I get from people who have been doing it far longer and better than I have. Nevertheless, here's a small inventory of my beliefs vis a vis Buddhism. I have arrived at these beliefs in entirely conventional ways -- by doing a bit of study and attempting to sort out what's true and what's not, and all of these beliefs are subject to revision without notice. I'm not even particularly well-versed in any of it.

I believe that some two and a half millennia ago, someone probably in Northern India had a great realization into the human condition, or possibly even into the condition of being any sentient being. This in and of itself isn't that unusual -- people have been having such insights as long as there have been humans. What's unusual is that this individual was able to both understand and communicate how he had arrived at this realization, in such a way that other people could realize it too -- without having to rely on supernatural beliefs, reliance on someone they think is a prophet, incarnation of a god, or otherwise superhuman character. What's more, said individual lived long enough to communicate his teaching to a relatively large number of students clearly and coherently enough that they could continue where he left off.

I also believe that the core of the Buddhadharma was, in fact, articulated by this individual. Much of it -- ahimsa, the paramitas, meditation, and so on -- was already well known at the time, but some, such as the concept of sunyatta, is clearly original, and the whole of the core has a coherence that speaks of the work of a single genius rather than an accretion of tradition.

Whether this individual's name was Siddhattha Gotama, or if he really was the son of the king of Kapilavastu, or if he lived in a pleasure garden, or saw the sick man, the old man, and the dead man, or studied with the greatest yogis of his time and was asked by them to become their successor, or any of the rest of his biography, I honestly don't know. I have a feeling that most of the Tathagata's conventionally accepted biography must be heavily mythologized, and I find the supernatural bits... unlikely. Whether it happened or not I don't care; the ideas this biography attempts to communicate are far more interesting.

I don't know if the lineage chanted at my zendo is literally, historically true. In fact, I'm pretty sure that at least the beginning includes a bunch of mythical characters. It's also quite likely that some of the links in the chain never existed in historical reality, or that there are gaps between adjacent links in it. Did Bodhidharma really come from the West and get lippy with the Emperor of China? Was Hui-neng really given the bowl and kesa of the Buddha and subsequently had to run away to escape the vengeance of his jealous fellow monks? I don't know. It would be interesting to know, for sure, but, again, it doesn't make any difference to my practice. One way or the other, the Buddhadharma came from India to China, and was transformed into Zen. And just like with the stories about the Tathagata, the stories about Bodhidharma, Hui-neng, and the other patriarchs are interesting and instructive in their own light, whether they reflect historical reality or not.

I don't believe in rebirth after physical death of anything that I could call "me." The explanation that the small self is an illusion created by the five skandhas makes sense to me, and from that it follows that when the five skandhas go, the small self also goes. I do believe that the universe goes on after I die, and I also believe that I, just like everything and everyone else, is an expression of the universe. I also believe that a great deal of the fruit of my actions -- my karma, if you will -- will go on after I die, and continue to affect the life of other beings. I believe, however, that this karma will no longer be centered around any particular living individual; instead, it'll be picked up and carried on by others.

And I'm ready to entertain the possibility, at least, that the universe really is mind, in some more than metaphorical sense of the word. About that, I have no positive beliefs, though, and I don't even know how the matter could definitively be settled, one way or the other. Perhaps it will become clearer later. Perhaps not.

So in these rather oblique ways I do believe in rebirth after death -- only I don't believe that what is reborn is "me" in any meaningful sense of the word. Interestingly, nothing I've read from the Buddhist canon appears to contradict this belief, even if some Buddhists have rather strong and rather different views on it.

Finally, I do believe in awakening. I don't know what it is, but there are plenty of people, both past and present, who claim to have experienced it, who describe it in similar terms, who communicate about it to each other in terms that make sense to them but not so much to people who haven't experienced that awakening, and on whom it has had very similar, transformational effects. I don't know if I can get there too, nor how long it might take, but I not only have faith but also believe that it's there, somewhere, if I can only crack open the sesame seed and get at the oil inside.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

Taking stock

Someone I knew 23 years ago and hadn't heard from since just got in touch over one of these social networking things. She asked how I was doing. I ended up writing this, which, for some reason, I think I'd rather like to keep.

"Where to start... It seems like it wasn't really THAT long ago, but a quite a lot fits into 23 years after all. So might as well start with the now.

"I'm in Helsinki. We're having the snowiest winter since... 1987, come to think of it. About as much as in DC right now, I think. We've had it since mid-December, and it keeps on coming down. It's cold. My wife Joanna is having a conversation with our cat Missy in the bathroom; we're going to have breakfast shortly. She's tall, dark, and Lebanese, and is working on her doctoral dissertation at the Media Laboratory in Aalto University, formerly University of Industrial Art and Design in Helsinki. (Joanna, that is, not Missy, who is of solid Finnish country stock, although she had a difficult childhood, having been discovered under a hedge, and subsequently rescued from certain doom by a cat-lover, from whom we adopted her.) We'll have been married ten years this summer, but sadly have no children. Our dog Jekku -- an oversized, somewhat simple-minded but terribly good-hearted border terrier -- is sleeping on a rug that he has carefully crumpled up into something that works like a pillow. I'll straiten it up again in a moment.

"After breakfast, which will be black coffee for me, tea for Joanna, some orange juice if we have any oranges left, yogurt, strawberries (from the freezer), and müsli, I'll be headed off to work. That's a short subway ride away, at a small Finnish software company, where we make things that we hope will finally render paper obsolete and save all those trees. I'm generally pretty happy with my work, although there have been ups and downs there as well. I've been working there almost as long as I've been married to Joanna. My work has nothing to do with what I studied at university, which was political history, but that's OK, mostly.

"Yesterday I went to the smoke sauna with my father. We go every few weeks, whenever he's in Finland. My parents spend a lot of time in France these days; they have a rather nice house there, and both are semi-retired. They plan to retire fully this year, or the next, but I don't think they'll be any less active – my mother teaches yoga already rather more than her supposed job, which is being a physician, and my father has any number of side projects going on. Both are well and happy.

"My sister Johanna is married and has two children, a girl and a boy. They live in the suburbs, and plan to move to Hämeenlinna, a smallish town about an hour's drive from Helsinki. She's a veterinarian. He's disabled after an incident involving a summer night, an empty country road, and a powerful Japanese motorcycle, so he mostly stays at home and takes care of the kids. They also have two Labrador retrievers, a chocolate one and a yellow one. My sister Anni, the tiny blond four-year-old in 1987, will be getting married this August. He's from a tiny place called Muonio in Lapland: to get there, you drive north about 1000 kilometers and then take a left and drive a bit more; you're there when the road ends. He works as a schoolteacher in Helsinki these days."

There was a bit more, but that's the gist of it. Time does fly...

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Sunlight on Bricks
Sunlight on Bricks, Helsinki, 2009

I probably shouldn't have dissed Jiddu Krishnamurti in a comment the other day. He had his revenge -- today's zazenkai wasn't fun at all. I got a pain in my hip that I in no shape or form could "go beyond," and when I gave up and switched to seiza for the last two rounds of zazen, I got so blissed out from not being in pain that I nearly fell asleep. And to top it, I got confused and did all the wrong things during recitation. I think I only really practiced for about ten minutes total, tops.

Could be it's just lingering after-effects of the H1N1 shot I took the other day, though, and not Krishnamurti after all.

Still, I did get to stuff a zafu during samu, so it didn't all go to waste. Turned out nice, plump, black, and round. Very satisfying in its way.

Oh well, back to the ol' drawing board...

Friday, February 5, 2010


Samba Queen
Samba Queen, Helsinki, 2005

Note: This posting has been updated on Feb 6, 2010, to include a bit more information I dug up about the Christian church with which Gurudas claims to be associated. These are murky waters, so take anything here with a grain of salt, and, if possible, check for yourself.

I had a short net.conversation with an interesting character the other day. His name is Gurudas Sunyatananda, born Gianmichael Salvato. He's a Catholic Archbishop and Maronite Franciscan Exarch (retired from active duty), and Khenpo, not to mention Doctor. He also uses "Dharmacharya," although I'm not sure if it's a name or a title -- it's a Sanskrit word that means something like "Life dedicated to the Dharma." (The title would be "Dharmachari.")

He's also had a career in network and Internet marketing.

No, seriously. He is. (Er, I think. I didn't actually check. Read further to find out why.)

Thing is, when he says "Catholic," he doesn't actually mean "Roman Catholic," like you would probably assume. Instead, he means "Old Catholic," which is a group that split off from the Roman Catholic one back in 1870, when the doctrine of Papal infallibility on matters of faith became official Church dogma.

On closer examination, it seems that when he says "Old Catholic," he doesn't actually mean what you'd naively expect either, i.e., the relatively small and obscure but still well-established group of churches operating under the Union of Utrecht. He actually means "North American Old Catholic," which is a church founded in 2007, and operates out of a hospital chapel in Washington, DC. It appears their only connection to the any Catholic Church, or any other major Christian church, for that matter, is via a claim of apostolic succession.

When he says "Archbishop," "Franciscan," and "Exarch," he doesn't mean what you'd naively expect him to mean either. The Franciscan order he's talking about isn't the Order of Friars Minor (which is part of the Roman Catholic Church), but rather a contemplative order that took the Franciscan vows that he and a few of his friends founded and got put under the Old Catholic Church. And while the question didn't come up, I would assume that something similar applies to his use of the term "Khenpo" -- i.e., it's probably not a title bestowed on him by one of the main Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Look up what he's written, and what's been written about him, and make up your own mind, if you can. He's sending out so many mixed messages that I honestly haven't a clue what he's really about, other than a highly interesting read. But this isn't really about him.

Credentials and titles are like robes and rituals: they have no meaning beyond what we, collectively, give them. Yet they do have this meaning. A title means whatever the people who recognize that title recognize it means. So, for example, a doctorate in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology means something, because MIT has a pretty stringent set of criteria that you need to meet to get one, and a wide variety of people consider MIT a serious organization. Religious titles have similar meanings, although different groups see them in different ways: a devout Roman Catholic would probably have pretty serious respect for, say, a Roman Catholic Archbishop or Franciscan Exarch, whereas the same titles would carry a whole different set of baggage for a fundamentalist Protestant or a Hindu.

This is why what Gurudas is doing is subversive, whatever his reasons for doing it. It's a bit like someone stating that he has a degree from MIT, without mentioning that actually the degree is from the Manukau Institute of Technology, a vocational school in New Zealand. He's not lying in the strict sense of the word, but he might as well be: until he mentions that little detail, he's assuming the mantle of authority that comes with a degree from the school in Massachusetts. (This isn't a knock on the NZ MIT, I've no doubt that it's a fine vocational school. The degrees just mean different things.)

I've written here previously about the difficulties related to finding and choosing teachers of Buddhism or meditation. Credentials do serve a purpose in resolving these difficulties. While obviously the title doesn't do the teaching any more than a degree from a law school wins cases, it can provide useful information about a teacher. However, the potential for confusion is a lot greater because the social mechanisms that give meaning to "spiritual" titles are a lot weaker than in many other realms.

In other words, the mere title of "sensei" or "roshi" or "khenpo" or, for that matter, "Exarch," "Franciscan," or "Archbishop" doesn't mean anything at all without knowing who has bestowed that title and who recognizes it. Being bestowed the title of khenpo by the Nyingma lineage is one thing; being declared Exarch of a brand new contemplative order with a half-dozen members is something else. In my book, titles that are not bestowed and recognized by some relatively large and relatively well-regarded communities count as net negatives: at least some of the reasons for seeking such titles indicate character traits that you might not necessarily want in a teacher. Vanity, for example.

There are some good reasons to seek such titles too, of course -- for example, a principled dislike for all of them, in which case you might want to have yourself declared Grand High Über-Pope to subvert the whole concept of religious titles. The Discordians do that with panache, as does the Universal Life Church. But you can't know beforehand whether that is the case or not.

It pays to be careful. A title and robe mean nothing. The path that led to receiving the title and carrying the robe mean everything. Things are rarely quite as they appear. Not everyone with a title is an authority, nor do all authorities carry titles -- and some who carry weird and wonky titles may turn out to be worth listening to anyway.

And nobody deserves worship, however lofty the titles and fancy the robes.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tradition and Innovation

October Flower 2
October Flower 2, Helsinki, 2005

Scientific progress is blazingly fast. That's because at its core lies a robust method for sorting out ideas that work from ideas that don't. It also means that in it, innovation is an almost unqualified positive. No matter how crazy an idea is, if it can be tested, it can be quickly rejected as invalid, or incorporated into the body of scientific knowledge. That's how we got from a barely-working steam-driven mine pump to a composite-bodied trans-Pacific jetliner in two hundred short years. This wild and very tangible success of the scientific method -- in both knowledge and technology -- is why we value innovation so highly. In our society, a single great idea can make a huge impact on the lives of millions or even billions of people, for good or for ill.

Buddhism, on the other hand, moves slowly. Theravada Buddhism is probably still pretty close to what it was around Siddhattha Gotama's time. It took three hundred years to transform that into Ch'an and Pure Land Buddhism in China, and most of the descendants of this transformation, in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam anyway, are still very closely related both in terms of thought and practice. The formation of Tibetan Buddhism took just about as long.

Lately, these and other traditions have made the leap into yet another culture. Ours. Just as before, these traditions carry the baggage of the cultures from which we've adopted them. And just like before, this collision of cultures has resulted in a wave of innovation, as practitioners attempt to sort out the cultural baggage from the "core" of the Dharma -- whatever that may be -- and find ways to meld Buddhism with the new culture within which it finds itself. Quite probably more so this time than on its previous rounds around the block, because our time and our culture regards innovation and invention exceptionally highly.

Here's where we run into trouble. Buddhism -- like any religion -- is about the personal, experiential, and subjective. That means that it does not easily lend itself to the kind of testing we're used to doing with science and technology. Karma takes a long time to ripen, and the true value of a teacher is often only seen after the fact, by the teachers s/he has taught or the texts s/he has left behind.

We haven't developed a test for enlightenment, or even a definition of enlightenment that would be scientifically testable. The best scientific research has been able to do is demonstrate that meditation does most people good. At the same time, we're playing with fire: religious experience, ritual, and practice works at very deep levels. It has the potential for great good, and great harm.

An established tradition has a visible track record, in the form of its adherents and its history. Before diving in, it's at least possible to examine it from the outside. What kinds of people practice it? What has gone wrong in its history? What has gone right? How do its adherents relate to these things? Most major Buddhist traditions have, on the whole, pretty good track records, and the worst kinds of innovations in them have tended to flame out quickly. Buddhist traditions in and of themselves have been experiments, of a sort, with ideas and practices that work tending to stay in, and ideas and practices that are actually harmful tending to fall by the wayside.

The upshot is that the downside of bad ideas is far bigger than in science or technology, whereas the upside of good ones isn't nearly as big. Any given innovation has the potential to make things much worse, but only a little better. Things do need to change as Buddhist traditions take root in new soil. I'm sure that eventually a genuinely Western Buddhism will emerge. Perhaps it'll incorporate something of the scientific method, or perhaps something of our idea of the individual rather than the family or other group as the fundamental social actor. Perhaps Buddhism will lead Christianity to rediscover its own and largely forgotten contemplative traditions. Just like before, in Tibet, China, Japan, and elsewhere, this will take time. Perhaps it will be a gradual, collective effort, or perhaps we will see our own Huineng, Hakuin, or Dogen.

Until then -- and even then, perhaps -- it's best to be wary of overly innovative teachers. Ditching the chopsticks and nested lacquer bowls for fine sesshin dining is one thing; ditching the concept of anatta or bringing in Jungian theory, or meditating while piping in binaural beats through headphones is another. Traditions should not be straitjackets, but neither should they be carelessly tossed aside. Most of the stuff is there for a reason. Buddhism lives in the twilight between subjective experience and objective consequences, and there are monsters in the darkness. Let's not tear down the walls keeping them out.