Monday, April 26, 2010

The Middle Way

Potsdamer Strasse/Bülowstrasse
Potsdamer Straße/Bülowstraße, Berlin, 2010

One of the first things I learned about Buddhism was that it was called the Middle Way; something that traces a path between excesses of self-mortification and self-indulgence. I've come to think that there's rather more to it than that.

There are always problems, dilemmas, decisions to make, and it seems there are pitfalls everywhere. Every decision can go wrong; turn around and bite itself right in the ass, and defeat the purpose that was intended. I've written about a few of the dilemmas I've been grappling with right here. There was the post about fundamentalism versus dharma surfing, and another about repression.

I've come to see more and more things in these terms: trying to find the narrow path between the rock and the hard place, the frying pan and the fire, Scylla and Charybdis.

People ask me for help a lot at work. If I help them, they're happy, but it means I'm neglecting stuff I've committed to doing, which causes problems later down the line, for myself and others, and if I do it too much, they stop trying to figure stuff out by themselves and just expect me to solve the problems for them. If I don't help them, they're unhappy, they sometimes spend way more time doing stuff I could solve easily, it throws off their schedules, and causes all kinds of problems down the line, plus I feel guilty about being a dick.

I've tried different approaches to solving this. I've printed out some traffic lights and hung them on my cubicle. Green means I'm happy to be disturbed. Yellow means that if it's really urgent, go ahead and ask. Red means I really don't want to be distracted. I've also promised to keep the light green all day every Monday, and I've made it clear that I'm making estimates based on the assumption that I really have four days a week to work on the stuff I've committed to do. Thus far, it's working out pretty well -- I'm on schedule, and nobody seems to hate me too badly, and I manage to help out in ways that really do make a difference.

Whatever this stuff is, it's not easy. There are always unintended consequences, to choosing and not choosing, any course of action you take, or no action at all. I don't know if there is a path weaving between all those extremes, all the ways in which things can go wrong, but so far, the process of looking for it has been working out pretty well for me. I make mistakes all the time, but looking at them this way makes it a bit easier not to compound them.

Less than a week of April left.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why I won't buy an iPad

Rose Garden
Rose Garden, Dresden, 2010

I'm a Mac user since 1986 or thereabouts, and Macs have been my primary computer most of that time, a few hiatuses notwithstanding. The last of these ended about six months ago, when I switched to a MacBook Pro for my home computer; I've been on a MacBook at work for over a year now. I really like the Mac as it is now -- I can mostly just ignore it while getting on with whatever it is I want to get on with, which is very high praise for a complex machine.

However, I don't have an iPhone, iPod, or iPad, nor do I intend to buy any of them any time soon. My phone is an aging Nokia E71, and despite being ugly and clunky and generally dated-looking, I like it for the same reason I like my Mac -- it never gives me any trouble, unless recharging it every week counts.

I just bought a Kindle for reading e-books in bed, and am pretty happy with it. However, I think I could find a use for something about the same size that I could also use for more computer-y kind of stuff. In other words, there may well be something iPad-like in my future... but it's unlikely to be an iPad.

My problem isn't with Apple's closed software ecosystem per se. I understand the reasons they want to keep it locked down and controlled. Opening it up would lead to third-party apps that crash it, compromise its security, drain its battery, or don't follow its (industry-leading, exacting, and extremely good) user interface guidelines. The centralized stores, for media, books, and apps, are also a big factor both in making it broadly usable and in generating a steady revenue stream for Apple, which lets it keep making and improving those things.

However, that's not all Apple is doing with its closed ecology. It's behaving in an unpredictable and arbitrary way with it, and in that, it's crossing a few lines that I do not want to see them cross. In particular, two recent examples have caught my attention.

The first event involved Apple rejecting an app for using a pinch-to-expand gesture coded by the app makers themselves, because Apple restricts the use of that gesture to programs developed by themselves only. That is clearly evil -- instead of promoting a uniform user experience, it explicitly differentiates between Apple's and others' applications, and gives Apple an unfair edge. Not a huge thing in itself, but it's symptomatic of a clear willingness to use their power unethically.

The second was more serious. Apple rejected a Pulitzer-winning satirist's app, on the grounds that making fun of public figures was against their policy. This one got eventually escalated up to Steve Jobs, who personally saw to it that the decision was reversed, but it's not the first time. Steve Jobs's recent rantings against porn are very much a part of the same pattern.

This is clearly beyond the pale. The iPad is poised to become a significant platform for delivering content to users. Rupert Murdoch loves it, precisely because of its closed architecture, which makes enforcement of paywalls much more feasible than on the Internet, where stuff tends to leak all over the place. This would put Apple in a position to if not dictate, at least strongly influence what people publish. That's dangerous. It's also completely different from, say, categorizing content with age limits, in order to make it a wee bit more difficult for kids to get hold of tentacle porn (although as long as 4chan is online, a fat lot of good that'll do).

This puts me squarely in the Android camp when it comes to handheld devices. An open software ecology doesn't necessarily have to be a jungle. Ubuntu, for example, curates its own software repositories, which are the only ones enabled by default when you install it. There's no reason Google/Android can't do the same. They're in a position to run an app store/free app repository that's bigger and of better quality than anyone else's, which means that people who don't want the, uh, excitement of exploring the wilderness can just stick to that and get the same kind of consistent and reliable user experience Apple does with its walled garden.

Google isn't without its faults, and it has a scary amount of power, but it has behaved in a pattern that shows that it isn't completely without a moral compass. I've chosen to trust them with my email, my calendar, my blog, and lots of my documents. If they violate that trust, I'll be very upset -- and, frankly, I don't really know where I'll go.

I'll stick to the Mac on my desktop, but I'm not getting on board the iThing train. Not unless Apple publicly recognizes that it's screwed up, and takes action that shows it intends to grow its walled garden in ways that don't endanger media independence or screw unfairly with the competition. Freedom of speech is a precious thing, and government censorship isn't the only thing threatening it. Great corporations wield great power, and abuse of that power can be every bit as dangerous as abuse of governmental power.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ordinary Zazenkai

Fractal Tree
Fractal Tree, Dresden, 2010

Today was my first zazenkai since the March retreat. I'd missed the last one on account of the excellent trip to Germany that spawned the Parsifal posting. This one was, yet again, different from the others.

It was ordinary. 

I was just sitting there, with thoughts coming and going, sometimes being able to concentrate a bit, sometimes not. It didn't hurt much, the dharma talk was funny, and it was nice to go to daisan. Now I'm home.

Until now, these more intensive forms of practice have felt a bit like ordeals; I've been sort of assaulting them and fighting my way through them and then feeling triumphant for coming out the other end alive and sane. This was was just a zazenkai. Not particularly boring or unpleasant or difficult, nor was it particularly enjoyable or easy. No great insights, no titanic internal battles. Just sitting there as the world drifts by.

I think I kinda like it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April, Zazen

Ostrich Roses
Ostrich Roses, Dresden, 2010

I tend not to deal very well with April. I can totally relate to T.S. Eliot and those lilacs breeding out of the dead land, although I'm more like
April is the cruelest month, breeding
dog turds out of dead snowbanks, grinding
diamond grit from asphalt, wounding
dull minds with barbed sunlight.
Something like that. Plus, it feels long as a famine year. We're only halfway through today, and it feels like it's been going on since January, at least.

I've tolerated this one a bit better than most, though. The excellent trip to Germany is a part of the reason, I'm sure. Zazen helps too. It's not being a lot of fun, and one thing that's happened is that my sitting practice has gone totally stale. I hate it. It's boring, I can't seem to be able to concentrate, and I just count the minutes until the half-hour (or twenty-five minutes, or whatever) is up.

But if I skip it, it sucks even harder. I guess that means I've devolved from... whatever, to bompu Zen, just sitting in order to drag my sorry ass through another day.

Zazenkai is coming up on Sunday. I'm dreading it a little. All of a sudden, seven hours of practice seems awfully long, although I just survived 48 hours last month. I've always felt better afterward, though, even when I kinda hated sitting through it, so I'll be going if I don't catch the cold Joanna's been having, or something.

Only another two weeks and a bit, and it's May.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Parsifal: Like Zazenkai, Only Louder

Not Parsifal
Not Parsifal, Dresden, 2010

My parents are major Wagner freaks. They somehow manage to wangle themselves tickets to Bayreuth just about every year, and my father even has one of those little gold rings on his lapel that mean that he's a member of some kind of secret Wagner brotherhood. I figure it's sort of like a Wagner black belt. At least some people at the opera got this awed expression when noticing it. When they offered to invite me and my wife to attend a performance of Wagner's Parsifal in Dresden, we jumped at the chance.

I'm not a Wagner fanatic by any means, although I have seen a few of his main works in live performances and a couple more on TV. When the Ring was playing at the Helsinki opera, I only missed Rheingold; I've also seen Lohengrin there, as well as half of Tannhäuser when Deutsche Oper was visiting. One of the first operas I saw was Der Fliegende Holländer, at the Savonlinna opera festival. I greatly enjoyed most of them, especially after something about Tannhäuser "clicked" and I found myself able to make more sense of it all afterwards.

Parsifal was nothing like I expected. Wagner's operas are big, epic, and packed with action, with huge build-ups to immense musical, emotional, and dramatic climaxes. Parsifal has a slow, almost meditative pace, with only two or three scenes per act, and they flow into each other without pauses. Each of the three acts builds to a single peak near the end. The music is rich, complex, and subtle, and would take much more than a single performance to be able to truly appreciate, even for a musician, let alone a layman. According to Mark Twain's classic account of his visit to Bayreuth, in which he says that he quite enjoyed Parsifal "in spite of the singing," most people only learn to appreciate it after seeing it several times.

In other words, in writing about this topic, I am even more out of my depth than usual. If you're looking for an expert's view on Parsifal and Buddhism, stop reading now and read this instead.

I had done a little bit of reading in preparation for the performance. In particular, I read Paul Schofield's book The Redeemer Reborn: Parsifal as the fifth opera of the Ring. Paul Schofield is a former Zen monk as well as a major Wagner nut. Parsifal is regarded as the most Buddhist of Wagner's operas, so I was quite keen to read what he had to say about it. I was disappointed. He tried to shoehorn Parsifal into a simplistic Buddhist format, with clear one-to-one correspondences with Buddhist ideas. In particular, I was left unconvinced by his central thesis – that the four main characters in Parsifal are the four main characters of the Ring reborn, and that Parsifal is an account of the final lifetime of three of them.

Parsifal is a complex work from a complex time. As such, it lends itself to any number of possible interpretations. Some of them no doubt reflect Wagner's explicit creative intent. Far more will reflect his unspoken, intuitive and artistic insights. Yet more will reflect human nature. And, as any great art, the whole will also serve as a mirror in which each of us can see ourselves.

The second half of the 19th century was an exciting time. The edifice of modern Western philosophy was being busily erected. One line of that philosophy can be traced back to Immanuel Kant's ideas regarding the nature of reality and the foundations of ethics. That line ran through Arthur Schopenhauer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Edmund Husserl, and eventually gave us Sartre and Baudrillard and their intellectual heirs. The common thread uniting these philosophers is an interest in the relationship between the universe and the way we perceive it; in Schopenhauer's terms, the noumenon and phenomena.

Arthur Schopenhauer was the first serious European thinker to make an attempt at understanding Buddhism. Unfortunately, he had no access to actual practitioners of Buddhism, and had to work from second, third, or fourth-hand translations of Buddhist texts. As such, it is no big surprise that he misinterpreted some fairly central bits in it. In fact, I believe we owe to Schopenhauer the still common perception of Buddhism as a pessimistic, even nihilistic religion: he confused the concepts of "emptiness" and "nothingness," and interpreted nirvana as simply a state of non-being.
For a way-cool fictional treatment of Schopenhauer Buddhists, try playing the classic (but recently re-released) computer role-playing game Planescape: Torment. It includes a community of spiritual practitioners called Dustmen, whose purpose in life is to escape the endless cycle of rebirth and find True Death – final oblivion.
Richard Wagner was a big admirer of Schopenhauer. Many of Schopenhauer's ideas made it into Wagner's work. Of these, Tristan und Isolde (which I haven't seen) and Parsifal are the most notable. In fact, his one-time friend and bitter intellectual opponent of Schopenhauer's, Friedrich Nietzsche, eventually broke off their friendship over Parsifal. 

In Schopenhauer's philosophy, the natural condition of humanity is suffering. The suffering is brought about by Will, which he understood as fundamental to the universe: the will to live. Therefore, he believed that the only way to be redeemed from suffering was by renouncing the Will. He saw the renunciation of sex as its highest stage, since sex is the Universe concretely manifesting its Will to live and perpetuate life. The way to renunciation of the Will was through compassion: only by setting another's needs before yours, even to the point of sacrificing your life for them, do you have a hope of genuinely renouncing the Will (rather than merely suppressing it).

Nietzsche wouldn't have any of it.
"Life is only suffering": so say others, and lie not. Then see to it that YE cease! See to it that the life ceaseth which is only suffering!

And let this be the teaching of your virtue: "Thou shalt slay thyself! Thou shalt steal away from thyself!"—

"Lust is sin,"—so say some who preach death—"let us go apart and beget no children!"

"Giving birth is troublesome,"—say others—"why still give birth? One beareth only the unfortunate!" And they also are preachers of death.

"Pity is necessary,"—so saith a third party. "Take what I have! Take what I am! So much less doth life bind me!"

Were they consistently pitiful, then would they make their neighbours sick of life. To be wicked—that would be their true goodness.

But they want to be rid of life; what care they if they bind others still faster with their chains and gifts!

When Richard Wagner in Parsifal so obviously sided with the "Preachers of Death," it's no big surprise that Nietzsche broke with him, too. Nevertheless, I think his interpretation of Parsifal as merely an illustration of Schopenhauer's philosophy of renunciation and redemption through compassion is as superficial as Paul Schofield's take of it as an expression of the Buddhadharma intuitively and deeply understood by Richard Wagner, despite only having encountered it through third- and fourth-hand accounts, in particular by way of Schopenhauer's (mis)interpretation.

The fulcrum of Parsifal is the encounter between Parsifal and Kundry, which forms most of the second act. This is also where Wagner took the greatest liberties with his source material, Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval epic Parzival. The second act is, on the surface, simple. Parsifal easily fights his way through the antagonist Klingsor's knights, then is tempted by a bunch of luscious flower maidens, to meet Kundry, who is in my view the single most psychologically complex and important character in the opera by far.

Kundry, whom we encountered in the first act as the Grail Messenger, having returned with balm from Araby to treat Amfortas, the wounded Grail King, is also bound to serve Klingsor, who has tasked her with seducing Parsifal and thereby defeating his quest for the Spear and the Grail. Most of the act is between her and Parsifal, and it kicks serious ass – it's more complex and psychologically believable by far than the simplistic pure-knight-fails-to-be-tempted-by-foul-temptress thing that you would expect. It is here that Wagner turns von Eschenbach's fundamentally simple and entirely Christian Grail tale into something rather different. He does it by turning the poem's cardboard-cutout knight in shining armor into a flesh-and-blood human being, with complex motivations, internal conflicts, weaknesses and strengths, whose heroism lies in a deep undercurrent of sincerity and compassion. Parsifal does not simply experience compassion for Amfortas and consequently reject Kundry; his compassion and anguish also encompasses Kundry and, through her, perhaps, "all sentient beings."

This is, indeed, the most clearly Buddhist moment in the opera. I concur with Paul Schofield that Wagner does grasp the meaning of karuna and metta in a fundamental way that Schopenhauer's intellectual approach misses, even if the scene has all of Schopenhauer's ingredients in it – compassion leading to the renunciation of the Will as manifested by letting go of sexual and, later in the scene, romantic temptation. Parsifal's enlightenment is anything but a renunciation of life and embrace of oblivion. (This must have been a pretty big shift for Wagner, too, since he had written that he saw sexual love as a potential way out of Schopenhauer's suffering, and explored this theme in depth in Tristan und Isolde.)

Nevertheless, this is also about as far as Wagner's Buddhism goes. The conclusion of the opera returns to more familiar Christian ground. Parsifal – by now the fully realized bodhisattva that he became in the scene with Kundry – returns to Montsalvat, the Grail Castle, after years of wandering in the wilds, and proceeds to redeem Kundry through baptism and heal Amfortas through the intermediary of the spear he recaptured from Klingsor, and take on Amfortas's role of Grail King for himself.

Just like in the second act, the presentation of this apparently simple story turns it into something different, and greater. Parsifal the bodhisattva is entirely human, and more connected than ever to the people he is redeeming; he has lost none of his own frailty, and carries the suffering of Amfortas and Kundry. This is a remarkable insight: it is far removed from the popular conception of the enlightened being as someone floating above worldly concerns in serene detachment, as he radiates a benign, mushy loving-kindness to all and sundry. Parsifal's compassion is personal and universal at the same time, and as such the best artistic representation of what the bodhisattva ideal really means that I have come across.

However, the story no longer fits into the pat Buddhist morality tale that Schofield tries to construct for it.

While the bodhisattva vows indeed include the vow to liberate all sentient beings, there is no room in Buddhist thought for magical, instantaneous redemption by grace of an external party, however enlightened. Every one of us creates our own redemption or damnation, and while our actions can and do affect others, there is nothing and no-one who can do the work for us. A genuinely Buddhist third act would have seen Parsifal indicate the path to redemption for Kundry and Amfortas, but both would have had to walk that path by themselves. Conversely, a genuinely Christian second act would not have seen Parsifal enlightened through his compassion for Amfortas, then Kundry, then all sentient beings, but through faith and the grace of God. The dove would not have descended over his head toward the end of the third act, but in the middle of the second, after Kundry's kiss.

Parsifal is an immensely complex, many-layered, many-faceted work of art. As any great art, it refuses simple interpretations. It cannot be pigeonholed; categorized as exclusively this or that. An illustration of Schopenhauer's ideas? Certainly. An intuitive insight that goes beyond Schopenhauer? Definitely: Parsifal has none of Schopenhauer's pessimism; the outcome of enlightenment is not death or oblivion (and those stagings that have Kundry die after Parsifal baptises her frankly get it wrong, in my opinion); on the contrary, it gives a more compelling answer to Nietzsche's slam of the "Preachers of Death" than Schopenhauer ever could. A reinterpretation of Christian ideas through the prism of Schopenhauer and Buddhism as seen by Wagner? No doubt, that too. But it does not inhabit the traditional Buddhist cosmos any more than the traditional Christian one; perhaps it lives in the same world as Lucifer of Vertigo Comics – the final story in that cycle is certainly one about Schopenhauer Buddhists encountering angels and demons of a whole variety of mythoi.

However, the presence I felt most strongly was that of the man himself. Perhaps, in addition to all of the above, Parsifal is also Richard Wagner's self-portrait. Perhaps it is an expression of his longing for a Parsifal that could be what he never managed; who could defeat his Klingsor, allow his flower maidens to wither, to go beyond Kundry's physical love; to reunite the spear and the Grail and heal the wound that could not be healed. The second act seemed, to me, to be something that is almost purely internal; an enactment of the thoughts and desires, fears and angers, frustrations and aspirations that go on in each of us, and surely more so than most in the mind of a conflicted, extreme, creative genius as Wagner.

The Buddhadharma may not have room for a redeemer that can magically heal our wounds and free us. Wagner could not be a Parsifal; in his life, he, like almost all of us, chose samsara over nirvana; the world of forms over the world of meditation. Yet he must have longed for one that could give him the peace from madness for which he built his Villa Wahnfried. I believe that Parsifal was the most personal of Wagner's operas; the artistic testament of a tormented genius when he no longer had to prove anything to anyone. It has the best and the worst of humanity in it. If he was right about what he called metempsychosis, surely the composition of such a work will have gone some way to condition a better rebirth for him.