Sunday, March 28, 2010

Medicine Men

Tied Up And On Display
Tied Up and On Display, Helsinki, 2005

Our society is over-medicalized. There's a gradual but relentless narrowing of the normal. What used to be thought of as just differences between people have acquired diagnostic codes and treatments. It seems as if a new syndrome or disorder pops up every week, with drugs helpfully provided by pharmaceutical companies to treat it.

On the other hand, medical science has completely revolutionized our expectations of a "normal" life. It's hard to even imagine that stepping on a nail used to carry a high likelihood of death from tetanus or septicemia. A strep throat is a minor inconvenience. Compound fractures can be set and treated to restore original function, often completely. Cancer patients often go into complete remission and end up dying of something else. Vaccinations have eradicated smallpox and turned many other lethal or debilitating diseases into rare occurrences or minor inconveniences. More important than that is the germ theory of disease, which got us to understand the importance of clean hands and boiled or otherwise purified drinking water, bringing mass killers like cholera and typhoid fever under control. 

Medical science has also led to an unprecedented understanding of how our organism works – how it goes wrong, what it needs to work well, what causes what. It can provide practical advice that, if applied, enables anyone to improve their odds of avoiding a variety of nasty diseases and maintaining their well-being and functioning far longer than ever before.

Any medical scientist will cheerfully admit that there's far more that we don't know than we do know about what makes us tick. The placebo effect, for example, has been observed in controlled studies for decades, yet it remains as mysterious as ever – and it seems to be getting stronger, at least in the USA. The scientific method is very good at finding correlations, and pretty good at finding causes – but only if the correlations and causes involve a manageable number of variables. 

When I was studying history, I came across the concept of proximate and ultimate causes. Proximate causes are identifiable factors that result in things happening shortly afterward. Ultimate causes are deeper, often hard to find structures that make it possible for the things to happen in the first place. So, for example, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip can be thought of as a proximate cause for World War I, whereas things like nationalism, colonialism, and various economic structures within and between countries can be thought of as its ultimate causes. It's very tricky to demonstrate anything conclusive about ultimate causes, precisely because they're often intangible, multitudinous, and interrelated in complex ways. I believe this is as true for medical science as it is for historiography. We can make rough, general inferences, but the more detailed we want to get, the harder things become to pin down. That means that the number of demonstrable truths is necessarily a small subset of actual truths, and much of the time, we're groping about in the dark.

Clinical practice is where medical science gets turned into action. It's at least as much an art as a science. Knowledge is certainly vital to it, but experience and intuition factor into it even more. It's pattern recognition, educated guesswork, intuition, and experiment. It's pretty significant that "evidence-based medicine" is something of a buzzword only now – the idea that doctors should prefer treatments that have been experimentally demonstrated to work, rather than rely on their experience and intuition. It's also significant that the concept is controversial – many clinicians argue that it just doesn't work like that.

What do you call alternative medicine that's been proven to work? MEDICINE!
– Tim Minchin

Our medical services are structured in a very particular way: to treat diseases. You go to the doctor when there's something wrong. You expect the doctor to behave like a car mechanic – find the part that's not working, and then fix it. For lots of things – like those killer bacterial infections – this works great. However, for lots of other things, it doesn't. The average GP in my neck of the woods spends about fifteen minutes per patient before sending them along, with or without a prescription. If we're dealing with a strep throat, that's more than enough. If we're dealing with, say, back pain, fatigue, sleeplessness, depression, digestive problems with no immediate, obvious cause, or, say, obesity, that's nowhere near enough. We have pills – or their equivalents – for many of these things, but they're crude instruments, like tuning a piano with a sledgehammer. These treatments are usually about the proximate causes rather than the ultimate ones – serotonin reuptake inhibitors for depression, muscle relaxants for back pain. 

I think medical science knows a lot more about the ultimate causes than it's usually given credit for, though. The doctor might prescribe you muscle relaxants for back pain, although he knows full well that what you really need to do is get off your ass and into the gym, then do some stretching or yoga, and then sort out that chair and desk of yours where you sit all day, plus maybe change to a firmer mattress. The trouble is that given the conditions in which he's working, the doctor has no way of getting you to do any of the stuff that you'd have to do to address any of the ultimate causes of that pain. A fifteen-minute consultation won't get you to change your habits. Naturally, this also means that there's a great deal more pressure to discover things that doctors can apply in fifteen minutes, rather than things that take more time to work, even if they're more effective and have fewer side effects. It's worse if the treatments don't actually cost anything, which means that there's nobody there to pay for the research to discover them and demonstrate that they work.

That's where the grab bag of stuff that's often labeled "alternative medicine" comes in. Personally, I dislike the label, since it lumps together everything from obvious woo like energy healing and homeopathy (which may still work, of course, if you believe in them – the placebo effect is really very powerful!), to bodies of experiential knowledge gathered more or less systematically over hundreds or thousands of years, such as Ayurvedic or traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture, for example, has been demonstrated to work for some things, even though you won't be able to find any of those meridians or measure the flow of chi by cutting someone up or putting him in an MRI machine. I'm quite sure that there's a great deal more that works (above and beyond the placebo effect) in each of these and other traditions, even though medical science hasn't gotten around to, or been able to, demonstrate it conclusively.

My conjecture is that stuff like meridians, chi, chakras, and what not refers to second-order phenomena – the way we experience our body-mind. This may be an effective way at getting at the very complicated stuff that's so hard to pin down in the lab. But that's really just speculation, not to mention a digression.

As I said in a comment in the discussion on my posting about New Age a few days ago, I only have a problem with alternative medicine if it stops people from seeking plain ol' medicine in situations where plain ol' medicine obviously and unambiguously works. It's not easy to stay healthy, and most of us laymen don't really have the intellectual tools to make genuinely informed decisions about what works and what doesn't – which is why we need doctors in the first place. However, I think it's vital to keep a mind that's both open and critical about this stuff, to make the best guesses we can about it. For many things, a visit to the doctor is the obvious thing to do. For many other things, you'd be better advised to seek out somebody who can help you help yourself. Whether that person is an Ayurvedic healer, a shaman, an energy healer, a homeopath, a priest, or some other physician you like better doesn't really matter, if she gets the job done. It's only a problem if she thinks she has all the answers and gets you to do harmful stuff as a result. 

That's not really all that different from a spiritual practice. Come to think of it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Whee, templates!

Google's just given us some new toys to play with. I might be messing more with the look and feel of this thing in the coming days. In case anyone has an opinion about it, feel free to post it in the comments.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dying of New Age

Do Not Vaccinate Your Child
Do Not Vaccinate Your Child, Helsinki, 2009

My gym teacher almost died of New Age.

I was in high school. I'd never been much good at gym class at school, mostly because I believed I was the clumsy, nerdy kid who isn't good at gym class. In retrospect, that doesn't make all that much sense, considering that I biked to school on most days, which was about 9 kilometers either way, and since I was (still am) chronically late, I usually cycled really fast in the morning. However, even though I was in pretty good shape, I was no good at running after a ball, and consequently hated gym class and got lousy marks in it.

Until high school. That teacher was different. His approach was to figure out what each of us liked to do for sport, and then encouraged them to do that. Thanks to him, I found my way to aikido, and stuck with that for a few years. My marks went up, too, not to mention my body image and physical self-confidence.

He was into New Age big time. He followed a macrobiotic diet, went on about how the Atlanteans, who were really astronauts, built the pyramids in Egypt and Central America, how you can bend spoons with your mind if you try hard enough, and all that kind of stuff. That was harmless and a bit endearing, until he got a strep throat and refused to take antibiotics because he figured that homeopathy and holistic medicine would do the job better. The pustules in his throat grew so big he couldn't breathe properly anymore, and someone finally dragged him to the hospital. The doctors had to lance and curette the pustules out, and then put him on IV antibiotics.

This isn't why I have such an intense dislike of New Age. I had that before. Perhaps it sealed the deal, though.

While I am some sort of rationalist, I don't make a religion of it. We humans are, generally, pretty irrational. We waste our time doing stuff we know doesn't make much sense – smoking, drinking, eating too much, playing video games, blogging, getting into arguments about semantics on the Internet, collecting comic books, that sort of thing. Personally, I try to keep my irrationality to areas where it does as little harm as possible, to myself and others, but I don't pretend to be rational except in some limited areas of my life. I'm not particularly offended by irrationality, whether it's of the religious or secular variety.

I am offended by harmful irrationality, though. The kind that hurts people. And New Age irrationality is a very serious offender.

New Age fosters a particular kind of woolly-headedness: the kind that makes for a fertile ground from which exploitative gurus sprout up like poison ivy; the kind that makes people withhold vaccines from their children, treat cancer with energy healing, or (nearly) get themselves killed from a simple bacterial infection that's routinely treated every day in every polyclinic on the planet with a cheap life-saving drug that's been available for half a century.

It's also intellectually a horrible mess.

Many oriental philosophies are coherent, practical, and often useful. They have conceptual frameworks that make a great deal of sense in the contexts in which they're used. For example, the stuff related to yoga has concepts like the chakras, prana, kundalini, meridians, and what have you. My mother is a physician and yoga instructor, as well as being congenitally allergic to anything smacking of woo, and she says that you can experience the chakras and stuff related to them – like colors – if you're doing yoga, and you can actually make use of them in some ways that go completely over my head. I believe her. And I can't stop wondering how she copes with all the chinking crystals and whispering angels endemic to yoga circles.

What I don't like is when some jackass takes all this out of context, parrots it to an adoring audience, and then starts directing the flows of kundalini energy between the chakras of his followers to rid them of their delusions, transmit shaktipat, and solve all of their personal, interpersonal, health, and spiritual problems forevermore, throwing in a bit of palmistry, crystals, The Secret, and Tibetan astrology into the bargain. Om tantra rama rama om. That irritates me just about exactly as much as when some other jackass starts jabbering about quantum shifts and the wave-particle duality and etheric vortices to prove the existence of poltergeists, or something. In each case, you have somebody who really has no fucking clue what they're talking about, but just lifts a bunch of fancy words and disconnected concepts, and then blends it into a fluffy mess that smells like incense and patchouli but is actually pure unadulterated shit. It's not spirituality, it's not religion, it's not even art, and it's a hell of a long way from science.

In our neck of the woods, Buddhism is right bang in the middle of it all, and I hate that.

The relentlessly cheerful and all-around good egg Markus "Uku" Laitinen, who is also the instructor and founder of Dogen Sangha Finland and as such an emerging public face of Zen around here, just did an interview (PDF) for Voi Hyvin, a New Age-ish lifestyle magazine. (Voi Hyvin is by no means the worst offender. Still, the headline articles in the latest issue include "Energy from Crystals," "Grandma's 54 Pieces of Life Wisdom," "Get to Know Macrobiotic Food," and "Clairvoyant Niina-Matti Juhola: Nobody Walks Alone.")

I read the interview. It was pretty good.

My problem is that the association between Buddhism in the West and New Age is very strong. Buddhist books are published by New Age publishers and sold at New Age bookstores. New Age mags publish articles by and about Buddhists and Buddhism. I've been asked if what I do is New Age, and I've had to explain that yes, we do burn incense and meditate, but no, we don't tinkle any crystals, we don't play mood music, nor do we compliment each other's auras, do energy healing, nor commune with ancestral spirits. While I had been interested in Buddhism for years – at least since I first encountered it "in the flesh" as it were, in Nepal in 1987 – I never even bothered checking out the Buddhist groups here, because I was so certain they'd have nothing to do with the real deal that I had seen. In fact, the first Buddhist group I did check out was pretty much that – lots of fluffy talk about everybody being your kind mother and all your problems disappearing, a gently hummed prayer to Shakyamuni Buddha (to New Age mood music), and "meditation" where we sat very very quietly as the instructor repeated the salient points of his dharma talk in what was intended to be a hypnotic monotone, not to mention that he was constantly singing the praises of his guru. Yuck.

By some miracle, I didn't stop there, and eventually discovered people such as Uku who hadn't checked their brains at the door.

Buddhism is not New Age. It's about as Old Age as the Old Testament. It's also a demanding, rigorous, and coherent system of thought, ritual, and practice. It's gotten that way through a couple of thousand years of progressive, gradual, evolutionary change, as it's adapted to new cultures and circumstances and slowly incorporated innovations from them. I hate it when New Agers appropriate its words and mangle its concepts and repackage it as something that looks superficially the same but really isn't.  It's even more annoying if it's presented in a Buddhist context, as Buddhism.

That's why I get annoyed at folks like Ken Wilber and Genpo Roshi who inject New Age pop philosophy from a dumbed down Carl Jung or an already dumb Eckhart Tolle into it, trademark it, and market it to gullible buyers. If somebody shits in the pool, I don't want to swim in it, even if there's only a little shit in it.

Idealism? Perhaps. In the short time I've practiced Zen, I've found it much tougher and more demanding than I could ever have expected, but also much more meaningful and rewarding. I think it has a great deal to offer to a great many people – but not as New Age Dharma-Burgers. That's why I'd be a great deal more impressed if Uku scored an interview with Tekniikan Maailma the next time around.

And given a choice, I'd much rather die of old age than New Age.

Friday, March 19, 2010

So, Is Zen A Religion, Or What?

Laughing Buddha
Laughing Buddha At Chinese Restaurant, Helsinki, 2005

If some early bird around six o'clock on a March Sunday morning had happened to look in through the window of the classroom in Pernaja that we had converted to a zendo, I don't think he'd have had many doubts on this score. He would have encountered a pulsating growl of two score people chanting something along the lines of...
Praise to the Buddha
All awaken to the Buddha
Buddha, Dharma, Sangha
Eternal, joyful, egoless, pure
All the day Kanzeon
All the night Kanzeon
This moment is born of Mind
This moment is Mind
...with a dignified lady in freshly pressed black robes performing prostrations on a pale yellow mat before a bronze statue on a makeshift altar, with someone else beating a wooden drum shaped like a fish's head and another one sounding a big bell that looks like a cauldron (with the Lord knows what in it).

In fact, he'd probably have called the police. Or an exorcist. And had he happened by later, during our yoga interlude, when we were tugging at our earlobes in complete silence with frighteningly concentrated expressions, an ambulance.

If Zen isn't a religion, it sure looks and sounds like one. However, in other ways it is significantly different from what we in the part of the world that used to be called Christendom understand by it. Western Christianity has been very much focused on questions of doctrine and belief, from the Christological debates of late antiquity, through the scholasticism and heresies and inquisitions of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to the dogmatic disputes of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, ultimately to the tone of discourse set by Biblical literalists of our time. Protestantism has taken this near its logical conclusion, as it painted over the images of saints in churches and made religion a matter between the believer and God, and sola scriptura its ultimate authority.

I think Zen may have more in common with Judaism than Western Christianity. It's not so much about believing anything in particular is it is about following a practice. I don't think it's a coincidence that there are so many Jews among Zen teachers and practitioners in the West: they already know how to practice, which gives them a huge head start. The rest of us have to first figure out what practice even is, before we can get started on it. Even more than Judaism, Zen is about orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy: doing things rather than believing things.

The problem with characterizing Zen as a religion – or not – is largely due to our reflexively seeing religion in terms of orthodoxy. By those terms, it's not really much of a religion. It's apatheistic, beliefs are pretty much optional, and doctrinal disputes are about the how rather than the what. Brad Warner thinks koans will fuck you up and it's better just to sit quietly and let things happen; Kapleau Roshi thinks that you have to give yourself to the practice body and soul1 and chip away at the roots of your delusions wielding the koan given you by your teacher, or you might as well not bother.

There is a huge amount of conceptual apparatus around Zen, from the core described already in the Pali Canon to contributions by the likes of Ashvagosha and Nagarjuna, Hakuin and Dogen, not to mention the anonymous authors of the Mahayana sutras.2 Much of it is intellectually highly attractive – practical, coherent, logically sound. Much is dense, opaque, and difficult, and does not make a whole lot of sense unless you're already pretty far in your practice.3

Together, this corpus does constitute a philosophy, every bit as much as, say, Marxism or Platonism or post-structuralism, and from where I'm at, it has a good deal more intellectual coherence and rigor than some of the above. But that's not all Zen is either, any more than it is only meditation or only ritual.

Ultimately, it boils down to the pithy subtitle of Philip Kapleau's book – enlightenment, teaching, and practice. Buddha, dharma, sangha. Whether that constitutes a religion is something of a matter of opinion. It's pretty pointless to argue about it, really, very much including this little ramble. Personally, I think I'm only interested in the question because I haven't thought of myself as religious or spiritual since I gave up on Christianity around the age of ten or eleven, and I'm rather surprised that I find rituals like chanting the Kannon sutra so easy and natural, or that when I recite the Four Vows, I actually mean them, at that moment, as silly as it may sound.

If your definition includes belief in the supernatural, blind faith, or ideas of absolute right or wrong, then Zen is not a religion. If it doesn't, Zen probably is a religion. Ultimately, the whole question is just about slapping a label on an abstraction, and abstractions definitely have no independent existence of their own – no matter what you think about anatta.

1 Which are illusions, naturally. Uh, right?
2 No, I don't believe they were really dictated by the Shakyamuni and then hidden by dragons for a few hundred years, before being conveniently discovered inside treetrunks and under rocks by monks who felt Buddhism had gotten too self-absorbed. That's just silly.
3 Anyway, I hope that's the reason, and not just that I'm too hopelessly dense.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

War, What Is It Good For?

Guarding Ground Zero
Guarding Ground Zero, Beirut, 2005

I have a complicated relationship with war.

First, in the spirit of Confucian Rectification of Names, let's make it clear what I'm talking about here. War. Not the metaphorical kind, like the war on poverty, or ignorance, or crime, or drugs, or terror. Not what one gang of meatheads from one neighborhood does to another gang of meatheds from another neighborhood. Not defending yourself or another from violent attack by some random stranger. We're talking the kind of stuff that's fought with sword and fire, guns and bombs and armies, in or out of uniform.

Or, put more academically, organized violence perpetrated by one imagined community on another imagined community.

Like most people of my age who have been lucky enough to grow up in our relatively secure part of the world, I have no personal experience with war.

Perhaps I'm a little bit closer to it than some, though. Like most Finnish men, I've done my military service, and I grew up listening to my grandfather's stories, many of which were about war. More significant than that is that my wife is from Lebanon, and grew up there during its fifteen years of civil war. I've visited many times, and seen some of the ravages of that war, on the land and on the people. I even got to visit the UNIFIL peacekeepers in Southern Lebanon once, when Israel was still occupying that part of the country.

Back in 2006, when there was that little affair between Hezbollah and Israel, war came pretty close. Bridges I had crossed were bombed out. The beach where I swam was inundated with a black tide of fuel oil when the IAF bombed out the Jiyyeh power plant, releasing an oil slick all over the coast. There were fresh shrapnel marks here and there the next time I visited. I wasn't there. I was safely in France, watching the action unfold on television.

Yet it hurt. I felt a sheer, helpless, irrational rage, of the kind that made it very easy to understand why Hezbollah does not find it difficult to find recruits.

At the same time, I'm fascinated by war. I like to read about military history and strategy, about tactics and weaponry and the evolution of organized killing into ever more refined and lethal forms. I've sunk inordinate amounts of time into war games, mostly on the computer, but also on the tabletop and pen and paper gaming. I've gotten absorbed in reading about the battle of Agincourt or that of Cannae; about Mongolian combined-arms tactics, or the ways the Hezbollah stopped the Tsahal in its tracks in that 2006 mess. I've read Mao's manual on guerrilla warfare, and Sun Zi's timeless Art of War. I can quote a bit of Clausewitz on demand, and I can wax eloquent about British naval tactics in the Napoleonic wars. I loved Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky with its ridiculously long battle scene on the lake, and the charge of the Rohirrim in The Return of the King brings a tear to my eye, in the book and in the movie.

While I mostly hated military service, it was cool to blow stuff up and shoot guns, and I was good enough at it to get some shiny badges and plaques for it. The organizational and tactical aspects of it were also interesting enough to make the whole thing feel like not a complete waste of time. When one of the officers asked if I'd be interested in staying on after my year finished, or perhaps getting into one of our peacekeeping units, I refused… but not before just a tiny pause to give it some consideration. By then, though, I was so deeply sick of the twisted irrationality of the military, that that pause only lasted a moment.

I remember the exact moment the absurdity of the whole exercise struck home to me. That was close to the finish of my year, and I was assigned to oversee the new recruits returning from their first evening leave. One of them was a guy about ten years older than I am, a physician, and someone who took another option – military service with conscientious objection to bearing a weapon. That's the toughest choice of all, because you get to go through all the pointless reprogramming they throw at recruits, and everybody sneers at you for not being man enough to shoot a gun. He was standing there at attention, tense and nervous as hell, reporting in, and I just thought, what the FUCK? What kind of system makes someone like him stand quaking in his polished jackboots in front of someone like me?

War sucks. Despite all the guts and glory and lofty narratives and high causes we erect around it, there's really nothing glorious about it. It's just people killing other people for some stupid made-up reason. It really makes no sense that it has the power to snag the imagination and the emotions like it does, but then if it didn't, there wouldn't be any war. It's deeply built into us. A delusion, perhaps, but if so, it's one of the most evil, destructive, and tenacious ones we have to deal with.

I would love to be a pacifist, along the lines of Gandhi or Martin Luther King and all those other guys. Yet whenever I start to think of the implications – really think about them – I start running around in a labyrinth and find no way out that leads to pacifism without altogether leaving this mess of a world we live in. 

Is there such a thing as a just war? If so, from whose point of view? By which criteria?

Let's break a taboo. This is so hard it makes me physically uncomfortable to think these thoughts, let alone type them.

What if nobody had resisted Hitler's little program to rearrange the map? What if he could have marched his troops to the Urals as easily has he took the Sudetenland, and realize his dream of the Reich? Would it have been worse than what actually happened? Would he even have been able to perpetrate his Endlösung without the brutalization caused by years of total war? If so, would he have been able to murder more than he actually did? Would those murders have been worse than all the other murder, death, and destruction that happened – Europe devastated from Calais to Moscow, 60 million dead, and still with half the continent under the thumbs of dictators just about as evil as the one that met his miserable end in that Berlin bunker?

It would have sucked to grow up under Nazi rule, or under Communist rule for that matter. But lots of people did, and most of them turned out OK.

Hitler wasn't the first warlord with plans to take over the world, and it's unlikely he'll be the last. The Mongols were far more successful, and at least as brutal. If Chinggis Khan had been able to hold his liquor better, even us here in the West might all be wearing little fur hats, and, perhaps, be good, peaceful Buddhists of the Tibetan variety. Where they met resistance, they left behind a desert where nothing would grow and no-one would survive. That guy in the Eisenstein movie – Alexander Nevsky – was sainted by the Russians. Why? Not for that little skirmish he won against the Teutons. For not resisting the Mongols, but rather traveling to Sarai and offering his fealty, thereby saving Novgorod from sword and fire. Sensible guy.

What's more, very few wars really are just, even if you can find one that is. Most are just painted that way, by the people who want them. All of them are believed just by those waging them; otherwise they wouldn't. Hitler's twisted motives made perfect sense if only you accepted his mental framework of the hierarchy of races and the manifest destiny of the Arisch to rule the world. Given any random war, you're much more likely to be fighting in an unjust cause than a just one.

So much for the case for pacifism. If I can make a case – even to myself – that resisting a monster like Hitler is not an open-and-shut case, then what's causing me problems?

Only this: I get very upset at injustice, even if it's as trivial as some jackasses being pettily cruel on an Internet forum. I just cannot bring myself to condemn someone who picks up a weapon to defend against injustice, once all other avenues have been exhausted. I cannot find it in my heart to consider someone defending his home and hearth immoral. I cannot help but be thankful to my grandparents' generation for the sacrifices they made. Had I been there when the tanks rolled over the border seventy years ago, it's unlikely that I would have refused to be drafted and been shot for cowardice instead (never even mind that I'm too much of a coward to choose that option, moral considerations aside).

My wife says that when war comes your way, you get down and stay down, or get the hell out of the way. She's been there, so she knows what she's talking about, and that position is just as morally defensible as the imperative to defend your country, as far as I'm concerned. But when the rubber meets the road, I don't know just how much of a pacifist I really am, but I hope to God I never have to find out. And that has fuck all to do with the Buddha.

Chinggis Khan

Monday, March 15, 2010

When Not To Do Zen

Sexual Harassment
Sexual Harassment, May Day 2005, Helsinki, Finland

That weekend retreat was way more intense than I expected. It's almost ridiculous how much of it was exactly what people like Philip Kapleau and Brad Warner and what have you describe in their books – the emotional roller-coaster ride, the feeling of abject misery and self-loathing giving way to elation, the Zen teacher deflating my expectations rather than acceding to them, the hurty legs, the crazily energetic, light-headed, and "purified" feeling afterwards. And the fact that it really is a rough ride, even if it is only two days.

A part of the whole point is, clearly, to push the limits. The discipline serves that purpose, because pushing the limits is uncomfortable, physically and mentally. Often – and probably for most people – the outcome is positive: you get rid of some nasty baggage you were carrying, and end up with a lighter backpack.

But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes you don't bend and stretch and emerge the better for it. You break, and the pieces rearrange themselves into some much nastier configuration. Then really bad things can happen. You can go into psychosis, or leave everything to pursue some phantom in the hills, or start to think you're a great enlightened master with some flavor of crazy wisdom and start a sangha of your own. There are plenty of stories like that around, although for some reason not a lot of them make it into books or blogs or pop culture.

There's a lot of gentle but relentless social pressure in my sangha to practice more. Since most people – most definitely yours truly – often struggle with maintaining the motivation to keep practicing, this serves a purpose. On that retreat, the social pressure to conform to the discipline was overwhelmingly strong (which is a part of the deal, of course), and the pressure to participate in stuff that wasn't strictly obligatory – yaza, free sitting at night – was pretty damn strong too.

There are some safeguards in place to prevent things from going too far. I'm sure the sensei and instructors kept a close eye on how things were going, and would have intervened had they noticed someone starting to seriously crack up. I had to apply for the retreat, and I had to sit a zazenkai or two before even applying. I've heard that the teachers don't accept everybody for sesshins.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the balance of the pressure is in the other direction, and despite the senseis' repeated stressing that breath counting really is a very good practice, much of the talk is about koans and sesshins, people often recommend going to stay at Zengården for a while, and that sort of thing. All this is very valuable, and I by no means think that sesshins or retreats or koans should be dropped to make room for people who aren't up to handling that kind of thing.

However, I think that we could use a little more instruction on when not to sit, or go on retreat, or on a sesshin. There was one guy there who looked pretty miserable at the end of the retreat, and I sure hope that he wasn't left all alone with that misery. (Of course, I was too blissed out to be the one to do anything about it, and now I feel a bit bad about that.)

Not everybody is able or willing to climb the steep paths, and I believe that it would not hurt those who are some way up to think of more ways to support less intensive kinds of practice as well. If someone who "only" sits a half hour a day and shows up at the zendo every couple of weeks feels like a second-class Zennie, then something isn't quite right.

I had a very good retreat. It was much tougher than I expected, and I'm much weaker than I like to think, but I feel much better about it. It was important. But I am going to put my ideas of jumping straight into a sesshin the first chance I get on hold for a while, and just stick to my regular practice and maybe do another weekend retreat in the autumn, or next year, and then we'll see. I ain't no leatherneck Marine of mysticism, and dressing up like one isn't going to do anyone any good.

As a postscript, I coincidentally happened on this funny story just now, illustrating one incident of somebody going a bit too far and cracking up. It has a happy ending and makes you laugh, but that guy Robert could actually have gone to the lake and jumped in, and not come up again. Worth thinking about.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Retreat, Teachers, and Zen Ego

Spiral Staircase

Spiral Staircase, Bengtskär, 2008

I just got back from my first weekend Zen retreat. It was nothing like I expected, and not at all what I wanted, but it may have been just what I needed. That 48 hours included about 15 hours of formal zazen, complete silence, some work periods, some recitation, and dokusan. And an emotional roller-coaster ride that went from abject misery and self-loathing to near-euphoric elation, with hefty side servings of pain and perhaps just a bit of practice and tranquility.

There's been some discussion on a few blogs here and there about how important Zen teachers really are, with some people arguing that you can practice by yourself almost or quite as well. At least I just figured out first-hand one of their most important and perhaps irreplaceable functions: the ability and will to expertly puncture an ego that's getting too inflated for its own good, and that without the tiniest shred of malice. I'm sure there's no permanent harm done, since it'll no doubt inflate right up again, but I will try to remember this experience.

I might write a bit more about this some other time. Or not, as it may turn out. Not right now, though.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Toys for Boys: Gigaworks T40 Series 2

Go Volumen! Helsinki, 2003

I just realized I hadn't been doing my duty as a citizen of the consumer society since Christmas. Apart from food and a couple of comics, I hadn't actually bought a damn thing. I tried to go buy a pair of shoes the other day, since my winter shoes are falling apart at the seams, but just couldn't stand it and left. Then I came home and remembered I had an old pair of winter shoes in the cupboard. I took them out, polished them up, replaced the shoelaces, and now they're good to go for the rest of the winter. Perhaps we won't even have a proper winter next year, so I'll avoid the chore of replacing them altogether.

To fix that, today I made a precision strike to the local electronics hell, and came back with a pair of desktop computer speakers. I had a perfectly good pair, only they'd developed a little hiss in the left one that was just noticeable enough to be annoying when there's nothing playing. I took those to the office, where the A/C covers the hiss. Since I liked everything else about the ones I had before, I stuck with the same brand, only I went one model up. My Creative Gigaworks T20 Series 1's spot on my desk has now been taken by a pair of T40 Series 2's.

Gigaworks is a damn stupid name, if you ask me, but that's what Creative calls their top-range line of 2.0 desktop speakers. They're intended primarily for music. There's no subwoofer. Most are a bit bulky for desktop speakers, and the T40's are the bulkiest of all. They have two midrange drivers and a tweeter; the T20's make do with one driver. They also have something called BassXport, which means a hole at the top that's supposed to make the bass sound better.

When I got the T20's, I was amazed by the quality of sound that came out of something that's so small and so cheap. I paid maybe 60 euros or so for the T20's, and a bit over 100 for the T40's. There's just one major qualifier: they sound fantastic as long as you're sitting between them at the computer. Get up and take a few steps, and the sound immediately goes muddy. They're very directional. I'm sure that's a conscious trade-off. In other words, if you want something to fill the room with ambient sound, there's probably something better suited for it out there, even in this very low price range.

With that caveat, the T40's sound fantastic. They're crisp and very precise, the stereo image they create is very vivid, and even small nuances come through beautifully. The sound is also surprisingly rich and full for something this small. I mostly listen to "small band" music – singer-songwriters like Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, or Jacques Brel, Latin stuff like Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Cesaria Evora, or solo or chamber music such as Glenn Gould playing Bach, which is on right now. (He could stop humming.) The speakers handle all of this really well – this music is every bit as enjoyable this way as sitting on the couch listening to it through my "real" stereo.

However, there is music that's just too much for these little things to handle. I tried listening to the first movement of Bruckner's sixth, and that didn't go so well. A full symphony orchestra opening up is a lot to handle, both dynamically and in terms of frequency range, and where the "smaller" music just sounds like music, that sounded like Bruckner's sixth playing on too small speakers. Magnificent music, but that was in spite of the speakers rather than because of them. I wouldn't expect Phil Spector's stuff to sound that hot over them either.

But then again, I only listen to stuff like that maybe once a year, and then not at my computer. And I don't even like Phil Spector.

So, how do they compare to the T20's? Well, they're similar. Whether they're worth the 50% markup is debatable. They're certainly not 50% better; more like 10 to 20% better. The biggest difference is that I have to turn the T20's up about 3/4 of the way before they open up, whereas the T40's sound good even at low volume. Other than that, they sound maybe just a hair "bigger." The physical design is also somewhat improved from Series 1 -- these don't fall over as easily as the T20's, the over-bright blue LED has been replaced with a more discreet blue ring around the volume/power dial, and there's a port for Creative's iPod dock at the back. I liked the gray metallic finish of the Series 1's better than the glossy black with tiny blue flecks finish of the Series 2, which looks maybe just this side of garish. Not obnoxious or anything, just not as classy.

The bottom line? Both Gigaworks speakers I've used are really, really good for the price. They're way better than any comparably priced 5+1 setup (unless your main criterion of quality is bass that kicks you in the nuts), and come this close to a real hi-fi listening experience, as long as your ass stays on the chair. Whether the T40's are worth the extra cost and size is a matter of opinion. Then again, in absolute terms, neither of these is expensive at all. I don't know if they're all this good, but I doubt there's all that much out there that's much better anywhere near this price. The T40's are perhaps just punchy enough that they might be worth considering for a cheap home theater setup -- they're certainly miles better than the built-in speakers on most TV's, and if you can figure out a way to hook them up, a couple of pairs might make for quite decent satellites. It's amazing how far this stuff has come.

And actually Glenn Gould hums pretty well.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Between Fundamentalism and Dharma Surfing

The Blessing
The Blessing, Nice, 2006

Over its long history, Buddhism has evolved into a variety of traditions. Many of these have emerged when a Buddhist tradition encountered a non-Buddhist one. Buddhism + Taoism = Zen. Buddhism + Bon = Tibetan Buddhism. Similarly, the various Buddhist traditions have interacted with and cross-fertilized each other.

Some results of this mixing and matching have endured and become traditions of their own. The Harada-Yasutani line in which I practice is a relatively recent fusion of Soto and Rinzai Zen, for example. Others have lingered around a while before either turning into something no longer recognizably Buddhist, or disappeared after their founders or their immediate successors go the way of all that is mortal.

Many prominent Buddhists – not least the Dalai Lama – caution against carelessly mixing traditions. At the same time, especially we in the West have a unique opportunity of being able to study and experiment with many of them. There are even a few efforts at creating an explicitly ”ecumenical” Buddhism that draws from several traditions. The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) is probably the best-established of these movements.

Ultimately, the question of mixing practices comes back to the fundamentals. Why practice at all?

I do a certain amount of physical exercise. I do this partly because I enjoy it, but mostly because I only have this one body, and I want to take as good care of it as I reasonably can.

However, I do not have any particular ambitions to build muscle, or strength, or flexibility, or endurance, or speed, or the rest of it, beyond what I need to do the stuff I want to do. That means that it doesn't really matter what kind of physical exercise I do. If I get bored with gym, I can try chi-gong. If I get bored with cycling, I can try running. The main thing is that I don't completely slob out: any fitness practice is much better than no fitness practice. I'll never become really extremely good at any of it, but it gives me what I want from it in a varied and enjoyable way.

For someone who practices Buddhism for the kinds of reasons I practice physical fitness, mixing traditions makes perfect sense. Meditation practices have immediate benefits. I feel much better when I'm sitting regularly and sitting well than when I'm not. I don't believe that the actual practice you happen to be doing makes a huge amount of difference with regards to these benefits, as long as it isn't something that's completely inimical to your mental make-up. So if your objective is ”bompu Zen” – meditating to feel better – I have a hard time believing that there's any harm in trying tonglen if you get bored with following the breath; meditating on a koan if you get bored with vipassana. Any practice is better than no practice, and if your practice goes so stale you'd stop it if you didn't change it, I believe that changing it is definitely the better alternative.

On the other hand, if you practice for similar reasons a great violinist practices her art, or an Olympic-level athlete practices her sport, things just might look a bit different.

There are musicians who have mastered a variety of instruments. However, they did not usually get there by practicing a bit of violin, then a bit of piano, then a bit of tenor sax, then the accordeon. They immersed themselves deeply in the instrument of their choice, and then extended that to other areas. They had demanding teachers that drilled them and tested them. Even so, most of them retain a main instrument – a great pianist might also be a great cembalist, and she might also be a competent violinist, but it's rather unlikely that she'd be a great one.

I believe that there lies the drawback of freely mixing traditions. It would probably be a lot more difficult to become really good at Buddhism – whatever that may mean – if you hop from one practice to another as your interest takes you, the same way it's a lot more difficult to become a great musician if you hop from one instrument or one style to another. To accomplish that, a teacher and a coherent tradition are if not indispensable, at least of great benefit.

Of course, nobody says you have to practice in order to become really good at it, any more than anybody says that you have to do gym in order to build a body that looks like one of those Belgian Blue oxes. That's nobody's business but yours.

Unfortunately, sticking with a tradition has its downsides as well. Fundamentalism: coming to believe that your tradition is the 'true' one, and other approaches are invalid. Getting discouraged: if the tools your tradition has for surmounting obstacles just don't work for you, for whatever reason, you'll probably just quit, and be worse off for that. There are no easy answers there.

There is another pitfall with mixing traditions too. This one isn't as much of a concern for the lone practitioner, because it involves teachers and sanghas. Highly innovative, nontraditional teachers have a track record that's... mixed. This is largely because going off the rails is an occupational hazard for spiritual teachers.

Whether teachers like it or not, their students want to give them enormous amounts of power over them. Good teachers are able to handle this without turning into cult leaders. Not-so-good ones... not-so-well. Many teachers – even very good ones – often become at least a little eccentric, and I believe a big part of the reason is the sheer weight of the expectations laid on them by their students. They're only human, after all. And, sadly, every once in a while one of them goes spectacularly nuts, turning into Zen Master Rama or Andrew Cohen or Shoko Asahara.

Established traditions have at least some built-in safeguards against teachers going off the rails. If a sangha splits off from the tradition where it originated, or claims lineage from a variety of traditions, or none at all, I consider that a bit of a warning sign. It's at least possible that the leader of the group has fallen afoul of the safeguards in his tradition, and has taken off on his own for that reason, whatever he may tell himself.

Many of these problems take a long time to manifest. It's often only possible to tell that an innovative tradition was solid a generation or two after it was established. Therefore, I would tend to be cautious about relatively young and relatively innovative groups like the FWBO or Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's New Kadampa Tradition. Had I made like Philip Kapleau Roshi in the 1950's and gone in search of a Zen teacher, I would probably not have gravitated toward the then relatively new Harada-Yasutani line. It turned out that Kapleau Roshi made a good call: the tradition has since established itself and is soldiering on with no more than the usual amount of scandal. Perhaps he was an excellent judge of character, or perhaps he just got lucky. I would not have risked it.

That is why I tend to fall on the traditionalist side of the fence. I'm not entirely sure why I practice, but I feel there's something to the reasons that's more than "bompu Zen." I'm somehow convinced that the Way leads somewhere I want to go, even if I don't know where that is. I've – slightly – explored a few of the traditions available in my neck of the woods, and have found one that meshes well with my worldview and personality. I intend to stick with that to see where it takes me, as far as I'm able.