Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Marxism Reinvented

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Zazenkai Notes: My Zen Weekend

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

Looks the part, doesn't he?

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Zen Moments

Gothic Rose
Gothic Rose, Helsinki, 2005

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

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

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Two Sons of Sindbad the Sailor

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Free Will

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

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

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

Monday, August 16, 2010

On Authoritarianism, Democracy, and Zen

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Salt Bonds and Food Taboos

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

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

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

Thursday, August 12, 2010

More on Mental Health, Meditation, and Risk Management

The Wild Bunch
The Wild Bunch, Nice, 2010

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

This is a risk management problem.

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

Monday, August 9, 2010

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

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

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

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

But it's slow going.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A note to readers

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

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

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

I'm not being coy, I mean this.

That is all.

Mental Health and Spiritual Practice

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 5, 2010

How To Get Enlightened

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

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

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Zazen Isn't Boring

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

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

I think they're wrong.

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

Monday, August 2, 2010

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

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

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

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

The short version

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