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.