Wednesday, September 29, 2010

If it's true, the Buddha said it

Tree Graffiti
Tree Graffiti, Berlin, 2010

One of my favorite Buddhist quips is the one in the title. I like it because it reverses the argument from authority that you quite often find in religious discourse, also including Buddhism.

The quip is actually an assertion of the form
If P, then Q.
However, the specific P and Q in it actually make it a reversal of another assertion, which is a bit like
If Bubba said it, then it's true.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Camera Lust

Leica CL
Leica CL.

I've put my Canon EOS system on the block. If you're in Finland and want a piece of it, you'll find it here.1 It's a very good system. I spent the better part of ten years building it, and it has served me well.

I haven't given up on photography. Thing is, both cameras and my way of taking pictures have evolved over the years. Digital compact cameras have reached a point where I can get acceptable quality out of them hand-held in relatively low light, and they perform well enough to get the picture in the box. I've become more spontaneous and perhaps less ambitious with my photography. I take pictures of stuff that catches my eye, and that's it.

The balance has shifted to the point that the portability and low intimidation factor of a compact are more important for me than the shootability, versatility, and image quality of a dSLR. I do very much miss the snap a big sensor or film frame and sharp, bright prime give my pictures. Despite that, my very nice camera system has been sleeping in a bag on my shelf.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dedication of Merit

Cleaning Carpets for Easter
Cleaning Carpets for Easter, Jbeil, Lebanon, 2009

Religions have their little secret handshakes. In Lebanon, for example, everybody peppers their language with various expressions that include God—"subhan Allah, ya Allah!, insh'Allah, hamd'illah," and so on. However, only Muslims will greet you with a "Salaam aleikum," to which the proper response is "wa aleikum assalaam, wa rahmatullah wa barakati," which says that you're in the club too. A Christian would probably reply just with a "Marhaba."

Buddhists—at least online ones—have their little flourishes too. For some reason, I find them a bit affected, sometimes even irritating. You know, things like "gassho" and _/|\_ and "metta" and referring to people as "sentient beings" and wishing "liberation" on them. Perhaps they only give me a rash because I don't feel like a fully-credentialed member of the club yet. Or perhaps they really are affected. Some people do manage to wear them well, but they're a pretty small minority.

One little flourish that has particularly irritated me—probably because it sounds similar to "I'm praying for you" or what not, which often has an awfully covert-aggressive, sanctimonious air—is dedication of merit. See, in Mahayana Buddhism we're not supposed to be practicing for our own sake, but in order to liberate all beings. There's a traditional belief that practice produces merit—kusala karma—that will mature as spiritual growth or, depending on your metaphysicals, a felicitious rebirth. However, this is only supposed to work if we practice selflessly. Otherwise, no merit, and the whole thing is wasted.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hezbollah and Socially Engaged Buddhism

posing with hezbollah flag
Photo by Paul Keller, some rights reserved.
Posing with Hezbollah flag, Khiam, Lebanon, 2007.

The system stinks, as Robert Aitken Roshi liked to put it.

We now possess the productive capacity to eradicate hunger, most infectious diseases, and provide everyone on the planet with the basic necessities, a basic education, and basic healthcare. We have the technology to do that sustainably. Yet billions continue to scrape by at a subsistence level. Hundreds of millions are illiterate. We're using up natural resources at nearly double the sustainable rate. A small minority of us live lives of luxury—including yours truly—and a tiny, tiny fraction become obscenely rich.

"Whoever dies with the most stuff, wins" is a pretty sorry excuse of a foundation for society. Buddhists might have some ideas about how to improve that.

It's clear that there is a case for change. Nobody can do that alone. Change can only happen socially. For that to happen, two things are needed: a degree of consensus, and a degree of organization. Religious groups provide both. Socially engaged religion is a natural development. It would be surprising if this never happened with Buddhism.

When considering the question of socially engaged Buddhism, it might be worthwhile to look at a highly successful example of socially engaged religion.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Zazenkai Notes: Jedi Robes and Spinning Wheels

Cyclone Closing
Cyclone Closing, Helsinki, today.

The trouble with a really good zazenkai is that it makes zazenkais that aren't as good feel like they kinda suck. Today's wasn't as good as my Zen Weekend a couple of weeks ago.

Which isn't to say that it was a waste of time or anything. I just had a lot of stuff churning around, and spent most of the time spinning donuts, and didn't manage to get as far or as deep as I've been before. Then again, some of that stuff was pretty interesting (might be at least a blog post or two in them), so that didn't altogether go to waste.

But I did end up practicing returning my attention to the practice a lot more than I practiced holding it there, and I didn't ever get past that point.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The 'Svaha!' Fallacy

Red sunset
Red sunset, Helsinki, 2006

I've occasionally run into a particular problem when debating stuff with Buddhists. I've dubbed it the "Svaha!" fallacy. It has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of not only Buddhist philosophy, but the basis of philosophy itself: confusion between the phenomenological and the metaphysical.

A metaphysical philosophy purports to deal with reality "as it really is." It looks for universal, permanent truths, immutable laws, and things that 'really exist.' We're natural metaphysicians: it rarely occurs to us to question whether something right in front of us 'exists' or 'is real,' or wonder how it exists. Instead, we tend to treat things as existent, permanent, and distinct by default. It is only through a certain amount of reflection that the flaws in this approach become apparent. A great deal of ink has been spilled in attempts to resolve these problems without stepping out of the metaphysical mode of thinking. Plato is the quintessential metaphysician. Other notable metaphysicians include Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Augustine of Hippo.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fun day at the zendo

Zazen at Helsinki Zen Center
Zazen at Helsinki Zen Center, Helsinki, 2010

I just got back from my Thursday zazen at the zendo. Olli, one of our senior instructors, had just been given authorization to give daisan. He seemed a bit flustered about it, plus he was in a hurry to set up the daisan room, so things started out a bit excited.

We had just started the second round, and he rang the daisan bell, and the first in line duly marched in. Then the fire bell in the neighboring building went off.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The God-Shaped Hole

Arles Church Light
Arles Church Light, France, 2008

When I walked into Helsinki Zen Center's zazen introduction a little over a year ago, the instructor asked why each of us found ourselves there. "I'm healthy, I'm married to the woman I love deeply, I have a reasonably interesting job with colleagues I like to work with and that gives me enough money that I don't need to fret about it much, I live in a nice little apartment in exactly the part of town where I want to live, and dammit, I'm still dissatisfied," I answered, "and I don't think a new computer will change that."

I would no longer say that. I am no longer dissatisfied, at least not in the way I described then.

I did buy the computer, though. It is nice, even though it occasionally locks up when waking up from sleep. I do that too, sometimes.

In fact, I'm… happy. (Shh, don't jinx it.) Not ecstatically jumping-with-joy happy, mind; just feeling pretty relaxed about it all. "Hey, rain smells good, doesn't it?"

Monday, September 6, 2010

Kōans of the Christ

Composition with Bears, Church, and Red Jacket
Composition with Bears, Church, and Red Jacket, Helsinki, 2010

I've always rolled my eyes at the "Jesus was a Buddhist" crowd. There are people out there arguing that during the gap in the Gospels, the Christ traveled to India, became a Buddhist monk, and the came back to Palestine to preach. There are so many things wrong with that story that I'm not going to even start on them. Jesus wasn't a Buddhist. He was something else.

I've lately revisited some of the Gnostic gospels discovered with the Nag Hammadi documents. The Gospel of Thomas is my favorite. It's a short text, in question-and-answer format, and it reads disconcertingly like a kōan collection.
Jesus said to his disciples, "Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like."
Simon Peter said to him, "You are like a righteous angel."
Matthew said to him, "You are like a wise philosopher."
Thomas said to him, "Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like."
Jesus said, "I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out."
And he took him and withdrew and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, "What did Jesus say to you?"
Thomas said to them, "If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up."
The Gospel according to Thomas, 13

Saturday, September 4, 2010

More Musings on Communism

Postcard from an Alternate Future
Postcard from an Alternate Future, Berlin, 2010

This post builds on my earlier musings about Communism and the batch of recent neo-Trotskyite science fiction and fantasy authors.

The central problem of Communist utopia is resource allocation. Not so much production, I think. We people tend to like to produce. As a society, we spend incredible amounts of resources trying to turn everyone into passive consumers on the one hand, and obedient wage slaves on the other, yet even so, lots of us produce stuff simply because we want to.

Take this blog, for example. In economic terms, it is a "good." It has a certain amount of "utility," because a few people like to "consume" it. Yet, bafflingly from the point of view of most economic models, I "produce" it simply because I want to. I would continue to "produce" it, even subtly altered, if nobody else wanted to "consume" it. My main incentives to produce it are the pleasure I derive from the act of producing it, and the effect it has on clarifying my own thoughts about any number of things.1

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mindfulness is not a Get out of Hell Free Card

Mindful Smoking
Mindful Smoking, Jbeil, Lebanon, 2005

I have an aversion for buzzwords. At work, it's "cloud computing" nowadays. Everything has to be "in the cloud" whether it makes sense or not, and whether it's really the case or not. These buzzwords irritate me because usually the original concept is a meaningful and useful one, but turning it into a buzzword robs it of meaning; makes it just a vague synonym of "something desirable somewhere in that direction."

One of the Buddhist buzzwords that grates on me is "mindfulness." The original concept is highly useful, and I think it means something like this:
Mindfulness means intentionally cultivating an awareness of the situation, one's actions in the situation, one's motivational dispositions, and the consequences of one's actions.
What gets to me is when people turn mindfulness into a "get out of hell free" card – as in "mindful drinking" or "mindful smoking." Blake Wilson had a very entertaining rant about this on Elephant Journal, with links to a couple of examples.