Saturday, December 17, 2011

Musings on the Euro Crisis

Bench with Buoy, December 17

I've liked to snigger at the USA's apparent inability to govern itself out of a wet paper bag, in contrast to our competently-run social democracies on this side of the pond. The ongoing crisis of the euro has made it clear that I really don't have all that much to snigger about. This is a monetary crisis. It's about money. Money is not wealth. It's a representation of wealth. That means that there are technical solutions to it, whether it's about splitting up the euro into more reasonably functional currency areas, or coming up with a program to keep it together until the eurozone's economies converge enough to be one.

Yet we're clearly not able to come up with those solutions. We keep kicking the can down the road and hoping it'll go away.

I love the European idea. The EU and its predecessors have managed to bring an unprecedented period of stability, peace, and prosperity to what is historically probably the most war-ridden region in the world. Even now, we have countries queuing to join. It is a unique experiment in political history; a voluntary empire with no emperor and no single hegemonic people, family, religion, or political ideology. It's hardly surprising that it's not an easy thing to maintain, since we're in uncharted territory all of the time. I would really hate to see it go.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Talking Buddhism with Christians

Ghost of the Cathedral
Ghost of the Cathedral, Helsinki, 2005

I stumbled into a pretty fun conversation the other day. It was on the website/blog portal of the major national Christian newspaper, Kotimaa. There was an article there mentioning that December 8 is Bodhi day for Buddhists. A short discussion in the comments followed, mainly between one individual asking "what does this have to do with Christianity?" and others pointing out that even Christians would do well to know something about other religions.

That had inspired a slightly humorous blog post, freely translated as "When the Buddha had an insight: fur real nobody ain't really nuttin' at all." And more discussion. Pretty good and surprisingly well-informed discussion too. One guy had a pretty good idea of what Buddhism is about, even though he admitted up front that he doesn't really understand it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Istanbul Impressions

Flag Merchant
Flag Merchant, Istanbul, 2011

I just got back from a short jaunt to Istanbul. I had never been there before, which is kind of odd, really, because it's not all that far away—closer than Marseilles, for example. It is a quite an amazing place. Clichéd or not, it really is caught between East and West, a Byzantine history, an Ottoman past, a Kemalist present, and an unknown future. You can't help feeling that it's bound to return to its usual position of dominating the Mediterranean, like it did from Constantine the Great to Mehmed VI, with nary an interruption.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

More on Copying, Stealing, and the Precepts

Please smile
Please smile, Brisbane, Australia, 2010

Since Jayarava appears to have banned me from commenting on his blog, and also indicated that he will be ending the discussion on intellectual property and the Second Precept, I'll post my thoughts here instead. A few interesting points were raised, and as stated, I think this is a topic that's important and tricky enough that it needs discussion.

First, I think Johannes made a very valuable contribution to the discussion by bringing up the parallel of taking a drink of water from a stream. He did it to point out that there is also "taking" that does not deprive anyone (noticeably) of anything, as a counterpoint to the argument that copying should not be regarded as taking because copying does not deprive the person being copied from of the artifact being copied. In this sense, copying is very much like taking a drink from a stream.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Copying and Stealing


One of the blogs I most enjoy reading is Jayarava's Raves. Jayarava is one of the few Buddhist bloggers with genuine scholarly chops. His dissections of Buddhist source texts are always meticulous, extremely knowledgeable, often highly perceptive, and sometimes extremely relevant to the questions modern Buddhists are grappling with. For example, see his short post on the case of Bhadda. He has substance and originality, which is something that's in sorely short supply in the mostly commentarial blogosphere.

But this time he put his foot in it, and on a topic I consider to be of so much importance that it deserves to be addressed. In Taking the Not-given, his posting about Buddhist Torrents, a site containing links to copies of books about Buddhism, he argues that the Second Precept—"I undertake the training of not taking that which is not given"—unequivocally prohibits copying intellectual property:
Let me just be quite clear here. Copying is theft. All those pirated books, DVDs, and CDs are stolen. There is no grey area here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Claims about the Nature of the Mind

Shadow play
Shadow Play, Helsinki, 2005

Sante Sensei has started a blog. He has a couple of posts up about emergence and free will. He's discussing the contention—by neurobiologists and other people working with the plumbing of the brain—that the mind is an emergent property of the brain, and that it can be, in theory at least, completely understood by understanding the physical processes that go on in it.

There are a quite a few very hairy philosophical questions involved, particularly with regards to free will, determinism, and randomness. From the neuroscientists' point of view, the brain is either a deterministic system, or a random one. As Sensei points out, it is not immediately obvious how determinism or randomness can be reconciled with the notions of intention and volition—free will, that is.

I've gotten into a few discussions about these same topics here, and posted some of my thoughts on the matter.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thinking about Thinking

There was a discussion recently on Barbara's Buddhism blog regarding the uses and drawbacks of philosophy, especially Western philosophy, in Buddhist practice. Barbara was a bit ambivalent about it, having come across plenty of smartass know-it-alls who are all too eager to explain how Buddha got it wrong.

That got me thinking about thinking, and the uses thereof. Philosophy is, to a great extent, thinking about thinking.

I find thinking about thinking a useful exercise in many ways. For one thing, it's challenging, and practicing it will help you think about other, more practical things as well. It gives you more things to relate and connect to, which makes it easier to get a grasp on new ideas and even new fields. It can be a drawback as well, naturally, since there's often a superficial familiarity to things that causes you to assume you understand them before you actually do. "Oh cool, Nagarjuna is just like Baudrillard. What about Vasubandhu?" Except he isn't, even if the two have some overlaps.

Sunday, November 13, 2011



I'm exploring a new hobby. I do that every few years. I'm tinkering with mechanical wristwatches.

My first objective was to take apart a watch movement and then put it back together so that it still runs. I just accomplished that yesterday, and I feel as proud of it as if it's an egg I just laid. I even sorted out a problem it had. It doesn't run very well, but no worse than when I started, and I didn't actually do anything that ought to make it run better. Just disassembled and reassembled it. Three times, actually; I had done something wrong the first two times and it didn't run.

I still need some tools to be able to try my hand at cleaning and oiling it. That's my next objective. I figure the odds of the watch surviving my tender ministrations are about 25%. Yesterday morning I would've said 5%, so that's an improvement. It's a really beat-up looking Citizen about as old as I am, and I picked it up at a fleamarket for not much money, so it's no great loss to humanity even if it gives up its life in the name of science.

I've learned a quite a lot already, about what makes watches tick, and what I'm looking for in watch projects, and even a bit about why bother in the first place.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Zen Choir Boys

Guild of Craftsmen

When you first walk into a zendo to do a couple of rounds of zazen, it feels like not much happens, other than in your mind of course, which is going to be about as Zen as a treeful of monkeys on nitrous oxide, if it's anything like mine. Yet there's a surprising amoung of choreography going on there. In fact, everybody there has a role to play, even if that role is "only" to sit still between the bells, get up, walk, sit down, bow, and chant according to them.

I'm only really realizing how much ceremony there is now, since I agreed to be something of a Zen choir boy and help that choreography happen. I got to ring bells yesterday, for the first time. I screwed up the final complicated bit, naturally, but nobody was hurt, so it was no big deal. I'll try again next week. If they'll bear with me, I figure I'll eventually learn it.

Ringing a bell is much more interesting than I expected. It's not at all easy to get anything like a pure sound out of it, and even more difficult to get more or less the same loudness, say, three times in a row, even when you're not at all nervous. A bell does exactly what you make it do; the sound is very revealing of the way you hit it. Hesitation or tension makes it sound broken. And you cannot, indeed, un-ring a bell. On the other hand, a nice, good, clean Ting! is very rewarding.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Greece and Germany

Bundesrepublik Deutschland

The Eurozone looks like it's about to unravel. Greece announced that it's holding a referendum about the austerity/bailout package offered to it by the EU and the IMF, and it's pretty likely that such a referendum would reject it. It's quite likely that it won't even be needed, as the mere announcement has gotten stuff moving so quickly that by the time there is such a referendum, it'll be too late.

The EU leadership has completely failed to address the crisis. I'm really disappointed in it. There's a simple, basic refusal to face reality. The reality is this:


This has been entirely obvious for at least a year now. Instead of accepting this and dealing with it, the approach has been to go "BLAA BLAA BLAA I'M NOT LISTENING I'M NOT LISTENING" and pretend that it's a liquidity problem, and that "confidence" and "voluntary debt forgiveness" that just might, if we're lucky, get the Greek debt/GDP ratio to about 120% instead of 140% in another decade or so, will magically sort things out.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Thoughts of Food

Blettes farcies

Thoughts about food bring out the weird in people. Otherwise agreeable, laid-back folks get a weird glow in their eyes when talk turns to ways of eating. We are what we eat, in a very concrete sense, and also in a variety of more or less metaphorical ones.
—How do you spot a vegan at a cocktail party?
—Don't worry, he'll let you know.
Food is a marker of identity. The Inquisition even came up with a special dish to make sure that Iberian Jews who had converted really had done so. It's made with pork and shellfish. The Greenland Norsemen preferred to die out as Christians rather than eat seal like the Inuit, when the Little Ice Age hit.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What Happened to the American Dream?

Suomi Hall

I don't really care for Johnny Cash. I've tried listening to his songs a bunch of times, but they never really spoke to me. Some have been played so much that they've become cliché, Ring of Fire for example. Yesterday, however, I ended up playing a few of his songs again, after wandering there via "Flowers On The Wall" by The Statler Brothers. I was playing them more or less at random, still going "meh."

Until I stumbled upon "The Man In Black." And, perhaps for the first time, really listened to the lyrics.
Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Of Police States and Occupations

Monument To World Peace, With Proletarian

The Occupy Wall Street movement and its offspring seem to be building up steam around the world. I like that. It's pretty unlikely that it'll result in the kind of revolution many of its adherents would like to see, but it's already shifted the discourse. Stuff that just wasn't talked about is back on the agenda. Some good ol' progressive ideas have been dusted off, and a bunch of new ones are being floated.

This kind of change is good. So carry on, occupiers. I'll be cheering from the sidelines, and maybe even showing up with my "The System Stinks" sign every once and anon. Thanks to Robert Aitken Roshi for that slogan.

It's brought out the nasty, too, in new ways. I haven't been a huge fan of the USA for a quite a while, but some of the ways the political establishment there has reacted to it has shocked even me. The American system really has come scarily close to a police state, and it's even possible that this will push it over the edge.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Meditation on a Watch


I can tell what kind of day I'm having by looking at my watch.

On some days I look at it and go "Damn, those hands are crooked, and the detailing isn't very good, and I'd really rather have a completely different kind of watch. Like an aviator watch maybe."

On other days I look at it and go "Hey, that is one fine watch."

On other days I look at it and wonder if it's fast, or slow.

On yet other days I look at it and go "It's 12:30."

The first kind of day is not a pleasant one.

Comments are enabled again.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Identity, Doctrine, and Consensus Buddhism

The Universe

I've recently stumbled into some discussions that have gotten me thinking about identity and doctrine, specifically Buddhist identity and Buddhist doctrine. There's a debate ongoing for roughly two and a half millennia about what, exactly, is Buddhism, and who should be considered Buddhist and who shouldn't. Currently, one division in the debate goes between a group I'll dub the 'non-sectarians,' and another one that I'll dub the 'fundamentalists.' I can't think of any better terms, although these ones are a bit loaded. Let it be stated up-front that I fall pretty clearly into the 'fundamentalist' camp, despite not identifying as a Buddhist and not having formally taken refuge as one.

The 'non-sectarians' feel that we shouldn't attempt to define what Buddhism is or isn't. They believe that such an attempt is not merely futile but actually harmful, since it causes division between people who would otherwise share values and goals, and, equally importantly, distracts from the practice of Buddhism, which is best left to each individual Buddhist to define for himself. The Buddhist traditions, in their intellectual, religious, ritualistic, and 'spiritual' dimensions, are something to be drawn from, not something to be codified or analyzed.

The 'fundamentalists,' conversely, feel that despite the broad variety of traditions it consists of, Buddhism can and should also be treated as a coherent philosophy with identifiable core features, that this philosophy forms a doctrinal structure that is indispensable in grounding and guiding the practice, and that movements and teachers that materially deviate from these core features should no longer be regarded as properly Buddhist.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Shooting the Frog Prince
Shooting the Frog Prince, Marburg, 2011

I had an interesting discussion the other day with two of my fellow bloggers, Nathan and Nella Lou, over at her blog, Madhushala. They were trying on the descriptor "genderqueer" for themselves, despite being heterosexual. Turns out the term means something like "non-conforming. Not comfortable with behaving or thinking in those gender programmed ways," as Nella Lou describes it.

The discussion felt a bit odd. The reason for that is that from where I'm at, there's nothing particularly strange about either Nella Lou's or Nathan's views or actions regarding gender issues that I can see. On the contrary, both are eminently sensible and level-headed about these issues. And by "sensible," I mean they think like any right-thinking person should, namely, me.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Man and Superman

Joan of Arc

I just saw Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs at the Finnish National Opera. That's four operas totaling nearly nineteen hours, one every other day for a week. I had seen all of the individual operas before, some live, some on TV, but never in a row, as a single, coherent cycle. It was a bit overwhelming. On Thursday, between Die Walküre and Siegfried, I tottered home from work around six and crashed straight to bed. Missed my regular Thursday zazen, and Sunday's zazenkai too.

Boy howdy was it worth the effort. There really is nothing quite like the Ring. Wagner is utterly uncompromising. Doesn't apologize. Doesn't talk down to you. Doesn't court you. Doesn't try to entertain, amuse, or edify. He is utterly free of sentimentality or conceit. He just grabs you, sits you down, and throws you in the middle of a storm of art, music, philosophy, verse, and stagecraft, and then lets you make of it what you will.

Which is kind of ironic, since by all accounts in real life he was a real bastard. Never forgot, or forgave, a slight, and held a grudge like the worst of his villains.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Twilight of the Gods

Something burned down. Something else was built. It opened on September 2.

Karl Marx described history as a series of stable states punctuated by revolutionary crises. A stable state is one where the social and political order reflects and supports the relations of production. A crisis occurs when internal contradictions in the system cause a shift in the relations of production, making the social and political order no longer compatible with its economic basis. This causes a revolution, out of which emerges a new social and political order, more suited to the changed relations of production. So we go from the slave states of the ancient world to medieval feudalism, and from there to capitalism.

The big picture behind the ongoing economic, political, and social crises is a Marxist one. There has been a fundamental shift in relations of production, and the social and political order we currently have isn't compatible with the new state of affairs.

Until now, the capitalist economy has been constrained by the availability and productivity of labor. More labor and more productive labor -> more production -> more wealth. The redistributive system that emerged in the rich part of the world after the Second World War did a pretty good job of balancing out the market's tendency to concentrate wealth at the top, resulting in an enormous and enormously rapid and broad-based rise in living conditions for everyone lucky enough to be born in one of these rich countries. Several formerly poor countries have managed to reproduce this same take-off.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Why I Didn't Like Human Revolution

Golden Sunset

Deus Ex is something of a cult classic computer game. It's eleven years old, and still being replayed and fondly remembered. That's because it's one of the few games that has real meat on its cyberpunk-stealth-shooter gameplay bones.

Deus Ex is about the collapse of the post-war social and political system, which had already started when it came out eleven years ago. In some ways, it was eerily prescient: terrorists had blown up a major New York landmark triggering a global war on terror, governmental power had been sidelined or co-opted by corporate power, the divide between rich and poor had grown ever deeper, and technology was on the skin, and under it. If Deus Ex was a novel or a movie, it would be somewhere up there with Neuromancer or Blade Runner. It had a sequel which sort of flopped, critically and in the marketplace. For good reason.

Another sequel just came out, called Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It's been very well received. I think the critics are wrong. Human Revolution is as badly flawed as Invisible War was. This time, not because of the gameplay, but because of the content. Deus Ex, the original, was a radical, subversive, thought-provoking game. Human Revolution is a profoundly conservative one.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fear and Silence


There was a post on Memeo today, about "complacency advocacy" -- people vehemently arguing that you should STFU and not rock the boat. It got me thinking, because I've noticed that phenomenon too. Memeo says:
Complacency enforcement in the form of policing activists is to be expected from those in advantageous power positions, yet it appears too often among those who are on the losing end of that scale.

Perhaps it is due to fear. That’s the only insight I have into it at the moment after having read a lot of these kinds of comments and having been on the receiving end of them more times than I like to remember.
Yeah, I think it's fear. I know a quite a few "normal people" (as the Russian expression has it) who grew up in police states or civil wars. Most of them have this as a built-in reflex: keep your head down, don't rock the boat, and don't go near anyone who doesn't keep her head down. Express strong opinions at odds with the consensus only among close family, if that. Don't even go see a remotely controversial movie because someone might be watching, or you might bump into someone, or there might be trouble.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Race Card

No title

Race is back on the agenda. It's been a while since I've heard anyone bleating about the post-racial society. That's a good thing, because there's no better way to shut down discussion of something unpleasant than to get "everyone"—that is, a majority big enough to make it conventional wisdom—to believe that it's no longer a problem.

Unfortunately, race talk itself isn't much fun. It's charged, and often slides into fighting that only deepens divides rather than helps bridge them. Usually this happens when a discussion about race gets derailed into a discussion of 'the race card.'

Monday, August 22, 2011

Well, it worked

Tripoli has fallen to the Libyan Transitional National Council. I'm pretty sure this wouldn't have happened without the NATO intervention that I was feeling so ambivalent about. There are no significant foreign ground forces in the country either; the Libyans did all of the face to face fighting. That is good.

Libya now is a very fragile polity. It's entirely possible that it'll fragment along tribal, ethnic, or geographic lines. That would be tragic, as such wars drag on for a very long time.

But if it doesn't, and what emerges is something resembling a decent state, then the intervention will have been worth it. North Africa from Egypt to Tunisia will no longer be in the hand of corrupt authoritarian dictators. That is good news for Algeria and Morocco as well, although perhaps not their leaders. It also ought to hearten the Syrians, who have nothing to give their revolution but their bodies.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Face to Face

Tourist Want A Cracker?
Tourist Want A Cracker? Sydney, 2010

One of the most enduring features of Buddhist training is the face-to-face encounter with a teacher. This is especially strongly emphasized in Zen, with its founding myth of special transmission outside the scriptures, from Mahakasyapa's smile on down through the centuries. In the group where I practice, there are two flavors of face-to-face encounter: dokusan and daisan. Dokusan is an encounter with a teacher, and daisan is with a senior student; someone who's not a teacher but has been authorized by one to do that.

These encounters have been immensely helpful to me. Indeed, if there is any one thing that makes me feel part of a tradition, it has to be dokusan. It's a simple, strange, and ancient ritual, and there is a real feel of continuity there. That teachers and students have been facing each other through the centuries. That even if the chain of Dharma transmission has broken here and there, the chain of sitting face-to-face has not. There might be the odd incompletely credentialed ancestor here and there, but even they have surely sat face to face with a teacher, and while some of the names chanted in the line of ancestors might be entirely mythological, someone has been there, right down to December nights in northern India.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Zen Master Corto

I've been thinking about right action lately a good deal. The stuff that's usually filed under 'ethics' or 'morality.' When I was somewhat younger, I did a bit of study of systems of ethics; conceptual constructs that can be used to determine whether an action is 'right' or not. Intentionalism and consequentialism. Absolutism and relativism. Imperatives and intuition. That sort of thing. At one point, I defined my ethical stance as that of policy utilitarianism.

Lately, though, I've come to think that none of that really works all that well. One underlying assumption with all these systems of ethics is that people know what they're doing. That they're working with enough information about the situation to be able to draw meaningful ethical conclusions from them. This is very similar to the fundamental assumptions underlying free market economics—that there are no information asymmetries, that all economic actors are rational utility-maximizers, and so on.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Trolled by the State Department

Looks like I've gotten into a bit of a trollfest, over at Barbara's Buddhism blog. Since now someone's impersonating not only Tassja (I checked) but also me and possibly others, I'll keep a list of comments that I've made here, as well as any comments from fake Petteri that I happen to catch. If it's not on this list, assume it's fake Petteri.

Real Petteri

  • July 31, 2011 at 8:00 am
  • July 31, 2011 at 1:03 pm
  • July 31, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Fake Petteri

  • July 31, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Note on the identity of the troll

In a comment dated July 31, 2011 at 9:03 pm, Barbara O'Brien posted the originating domain of fake Tassja's and fake Petteri's comments (the same for both):
The fake Tassja and fake Peter are the same individual, and according to a WHOIS search this person is in the Washington, DC, area and using a ISP host.
That's a US Department of State server. Stupid Hillary, you'd've thunk she's got better things to do than troll Buddhist blogs.

Added August 1, 9:15 am CET

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Stuff I Learned About Beestings

I've learned a quite a lot about beestings in the last day or two.

If you're out cycling on a windy day in an area with lots of flowering fields and apiculture, you're likely to get stung.

You should get the sting out as soon as possible. It keeps pumping in venom even after the dying bee has fallen off. Also, the longer it's in, the bigger the risk of a secondary infection.

If stung in the head, see a doctor. You can get secondary infections from beestings. If the infection is in the head, there are all kinds of ways bacteria can make their way inside the skull, which is really bad news. Antibiotics are good against those. You can even get tetanus from a beesting, so it's good to keep that particular shot up to date!

You might be allergic, but you'll only know when you get stung a second time.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

About that Men's Rights thing

Sydney is one of the world's leading gay cities
As a side-effect of the Oslo tragedy, I've encountered the so-called Men's Rights Movement. It seems Anders Breivik shared many of their ideas.

I had previously only encountered one of their claims. It pops up in the media from time to time. They allege that fathers are treated unfairly in divorce courts, especially with regards to child support and custody of children. They claim that courts tend to favor mothers in custody cases, and impose heavier child-support payments on fathers, all else being equal. This seems to be a recurrent theme and one of their main beefs.

I haven't checked out the data, so I don't know if it's true. However, it does sound perfectly plausible to me.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Faces of Nonviolence

Faces of Terrorism

Killing people is not an acceptable way of sorting out our differences.