Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dirty Zen Laundry

Be Vigilant when meeting New Friends
Be Vigilant when meeting New Friends, Hong Kong, 2010

I am going to do something slightly radical here, and air some dirty laundry from the Zen center where I practice.

While I have been talking to a number of people involved and attempted to verify all the facts stated in the narrative, all opinions and interpretations are my own, as are any errors. I have neither sought nor received permission from anyone to publish this. I do not believe I am betraying any confidences; all of the facts of the matter are already on the public Internet, or have been stated in open forums like our sangha meetings or the Helsinki Zen Center mailing list. Nor am I privy to any great secrets anyway.

The story is about something that happened in our sangha in the autumn of 2010. I have found it helpful to go over all the information I've been able to gather about it and attempt to fit together the pieces, to get some kind of understanding of what happened and what it means. While I don't have much – if any – new information to add to what's already been published on the Internet or in other open forums, I thought others might benefit from my attempt at explaining the events to myself.

So for whatever little it's worth, here's my personal interpretation of what's come to be called "the crisis."

Monday, June 11, 2012

Going Round With A Stick Is Not For Me

IMG_0546-01

Back in November, I blogged about becoming a Zen choir boy. Or second zendo leader, as the official term has it. Now I've decided that going around with a stick on alternate Thursdays was a bit too much excitement for me and stopped doing it.

The role kind of blindsided me from the start. There are little parts to play in the zazen ritual, like banging on the han and lighting the incense, which I was already doing anyway, so when they asked if I could do the stick thing on Thursdays, I didn't really think anything of it and said "Sure, why not?" I like the ritual after all, and am happy to help it along.

I only realized that there's anything more to it a week or so later when I got an email invitation to a zendo leaders' meeting. I was like, Huh? A meeting, for walking around with a stick on alternate Thursdays? From there on out, I felt a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing. Initially it was just about learning how to do the stick thing and the bell thing, but once I had that more or less figured out, the discomfort didn't abate; if anything, it got worse.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What Is Zen Good For?

Moon Nazi
This is not a real Nazi. He was just going to an Iron Sky themed party.

Whoever said that we are creatures of habit didn't know how right he was.

Over the past few years that I've been muddling my way through beginning Zen practice, I've come across a quite a lot of bad behavior by people who have been at it much longer and with much more dedication than I have. First-hand I've only seen the usual kind of bullshit people get up to when they coalesce into social structures, both within and between them; from elsewhere in time and space there are plenty of examples to be found of the full range of human iniquity.

Zen is demonstrably good at training killers. Japanese Zen—Rinzai Zen in particular—has a close connection to bushidô, the samurai warrior code. Hakuin Ekaku, the founder of Japanese Rinzai Zen, trained samurais, driving some of his students so hard they died from the training. The function of Zen archery was originally to train the medieval equivalent of snipers. One of the founders of the tradition in which I practice, Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, wrote angry tirades in support of imperial Japanese nationalism, railing against the international Jewish conspiracy, and providing dharmically correct explanations of how killing a sub-human in battle is the highest form of bodhisattva action.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Retreat at the Break of Summer

Looping Landscape

I just got back from a weekend Zen retreat. We held it at a pretty idyllic spot; a log house by a lake near Vihti. The gods of the seasons treated us kindly, too—Saturday was the first perfect early summer night of the year. I stood a while by the perfectly still lakeside, with the bright, fresh green of the just-budded birch leaves, birds singing their hearts out, a cuckoo in the distance, the pale blue evening sky, and even two guys in a canoe, fishing.

Yeah, sometimes it really is like that.

Pain

Jekku Yet Again

Hello, Pain, I said
Who are you?

I am your most faithful friend, he replied
looked back at me with brown eyes
and wagged his tail
apologetically
expecting his usual lot from an ungrateful master
—a curse and a kick or another vain attempt
to chase him away.

I love you, he said
I want to keep you safe from Bad Things
I will watch for them
and warn you
my master
when they would harm you.
Before you were born I was waiting for you
When you are no more I will lie on your grave
Watching for Bad Things
that would harm you.

If only I could rend them, or chase them away
or outwit them

or take them upon myself

But I am only Pain
Not very clever
Not very strong
Not very wise

Only Pain
All I have is my voice
So I sit up when you sleep
and watch
and wait
and if Bad Things come,
I whine, or bark, or scratch at your door.

You curse me and kick at me
try to chase me away
Drug me, still me
(or even kill me)
It doesn't matter at all.

I will always love you
I will always be here
For you and the Bad Things.

I am Pain.
I am your Pain.
I will always be here
while there are Bad Things.

Perhaps

Perhaps
you could

train me?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Things Get Interesting In Europe

Happy International Workers' Day (in color)

Things are getting interesting in Europe again. In a good way, mostly, I hope. Congratulations to François Hollande, Président de la République. Not so sure who I'd want to congratulate in Greece though. I sympathize with wanting to kick out the bums responsible for the mess they're in, but voting in actual, card-carrying, Hitler-saluting Nazis is unlikely to make things any better.

Since I got my head around this whole Euro crisis, I've felt that the German-led course of austerity and low inflation is a dead end. Austerity never has begat growth. Never will. Structural reforms, addressing corruption, investing in infrastructure—human and physical—do produce growth, but only in the long term. They won't get you out of an acute crisis unless they involve spending lots of money. It's painfully obvious that Greece and the rest of the Balkans at least are sorely in need of structural reforms, but I somehow don't think a huge crisis with a quarter of the labor force unemployed makes them any easier.

There are alternatives to austerity. The obvious one is breaking up the Eurozone and letting the resulting regional currencies float.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Pulling Coffee

I like shiny

I like learning weird little skills. The past year has been pretty good for that. I've dabbled in joinery, learned the basics of how to clean and oil a watch, and now I'm learning to pull an espresso. Don't get me wrong, I still love moka, but I like espresso too and have been curious about learning to make it for a long time.

Since I enjoy the process of doing things as much as the result and often more so, I chose the most basic espresso machine of them all. For about a week now, I'm the proud owner of an Europiccola, a manual piston lever machine by La Pavoni. The design hasn't changed much since it was first introduced in 1961. Perhaps the most significant change is the introduction of a pressurestat that maintains water temperature and pressure in the boiler with less fuss than the pressure valve and double power switch of the older models. It's quite refreshing to encounter a household appliance these days that assumes you're a responsible adult. There are all kinds of ways you can burn or scald yourself or spray steam and coffee grounds all over your kitchen with it, if you don't follow the instructions.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

X-Pro 1 Tips and Tricks: The Basics

Kuvia 1

I got a few requests for a "how-to" article on the Fujifilm X-Pro 1. When I started to write one, it quickly got out of hand. There's a lot to say about this camera. Too much for a single post. I think such an article is needed, though, because this is a bit of an unusual beast, and going by the talk on the DPReview forums, there are a quite a few people who are somewhat confused by it.

So I decided to write not one, but several articles. I don't know if I'll ever get around to writing the others, but here's one, anyway—the basic approach to getting to know the Fujifilm X-Pro 1. If you're considering this camera, this might be worth a read too, because it might turn out it's not the camera for you after all. It is a special-purpose instrument which excels at one thing and can handle a quite a few others, but there are cameras out there that are better suited for almost any of those other things.

If you're looking for a camera for situational shooting—discreet photography of human-scale subjects at moderate distances in their natural surroundings, where the limitation is usually precise timing—then read on. For most other purposes, you'll probably be better served by something else.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Is the X-Pro 1 for you?

Fire! Fire!

There's a lot of anxiety about the pros and cons of the X-Pro 1 in that abode of hungry ghosts, the DPReview forums. I think most of that anxiety really boils down to one question—is it the right camera for you?

Thom at Sans Mirror:
Fujifilm X-Pro1 or Olympus E-M5? Still a little early to call, but initial impressions say E-M5 hands down. The X-Pro1 is a big camera, as big as a Leica M9. It has a limited (and expensive) lens set. It has poor autofocus performance. It has a large, eccentric sensor (APS, non-Bayer). It has a retro design with a hybrid optical/EVF viewfinder. The E-M5 is a smaller camera than it looks in photos. It has an extensive lens set. It has faster focus performance. It has the best of the m4/3 sensors so far. It has a very usable EVF. The problem I have with the Fujifilm is that it is really only great for one (slow) style of shooting, and it's doesn't take advantage of the size benefit that removing the mirror gives you. The hybrid viewfinder is fine, but it's a bit of a gimmick. A good EVF is enough, which is exactly what the E-M5 has. Bottom line: for less money you get a smaller camera that has a huge lens arsenal and very good autofocus performance.

I almost agree... even if I think I can smell a whiff of irrational bias there. How is a 'large, eccentric sensor' a disadvantage?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Rust, Concrete, and Test Shots

Guerrilla Knitting
Guerrilla Knitting, Fuji X-Pro 1 with 35/1.4.

The light really wasn't great today. Bit of a waste to go street shooting, too, since there was barely anybody out there, plowing through the melting snowbanks.

But I did make another excursion, this one towards Suvilahti, the old industrial zone in the process of being converted into a culture hangout kind of place. I figured that all that rusting metal and flaking paint would at least look suitably grim on this gray, wet day. Those are in my Least Photogenic Day set too.

Gas Bells 2
Gas Bells 2, X-Pro 1 with 35/1.4.

The Least Photogenic Day in Helsinki

Cannonball!
Cannonball!—The 35/1.4 on the X-Pro 1. Shutter priority, 1/250, grab shot. Click through for all sizes and more samples. All the shots are straight out-of-camera JPEGs in Provia film mode. I'm too lazy to faff about with them anyway, since Lightroom support isn't in yet.

My pageviews are through the roof. Wow. Welcome to my blog, new readers, and I hope you find something you like here. Since this place is a bit eclectic, may I direct your attention to the handy tag cloud at bottom right; you will be able to find things that may interest you by clicking on promising tags there.

Since I presume most of you aren't here for the Buddhism nor the politics, here's more camera pr0n! Note that this is emphatically not a review; these are near real-time impressions of the camera as I'm figuring out my way around it. There might be something approximating a review later, but not yet. Remember that I've had the camera for all of three days at this point, and I didn't have time to do any shooting with it yesterday.

I've taken two short walks around the neighborhood with the beast today, one with the 35/1.4 and another with the 18/2.0. This has got to be the least photogenic day of the year in Helsinki, what with light rain, the snow halfway melted leaving everything covered in a thin coating of poo, of which copious amounts of the dog variety are appearing from underneath. So, not ideal for going out there to get gorgeous photos. Nevertheless, I'm having a lot of fun with this. Planning to do some semi-controlled off-the-tripod test shooting next, but in the interim, here's how I feel about it at this point.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Camera pr0n: The Fuji X-Pro 1 - First Impressions

Onions
Onions. Straight out of camera JPEG.

Update: If you're only arriving here now, please note that I've got two other posts up about this camera already, including some semi-controlled lens test shots.

Time for a break from the heavy Buddhisty type stuff I've been posting about lately, 'cuz I just bought a camera.

I've been without a "big" camera since I sold my Canon EOS system a few years back. I loved everything about the 5D except the bulk—it's a heavy and very visible piece of kit, and as compact cameras improved I eventually reached a tipping point where the 5D just stayed at home. It was too nice a system to keep gathering dust, so I sold it.

In the interim, I've been using a Canon S90 compact and a Panasonic GF1 with the 20/1.7 pancake. These get the job done well enough, but nevertheless have some limitations that I kept bumping into. The Canon is fantastic for a pocket camera, but neither the optics nor the electronic image quality are as good as on a larger camera; the Panny was capable of superb results in the right conditions, but I was missing the viewfinder, and I was pretty often bumping against its imaging limits too—specifically, in bright light I would tend to blow out the highlights, and in poor light I would struggle with noise.

Somebody finally built the camera I've been waiting for since the digital revolution—a thoroughly modernized re-invention of the Leica CL. This would be the Fuji X-Pro 1. I finally got mine, and since this is a new model that has evoked a quite a lot of interest, I'll be blogging about getting to know it. I've only had it for a day, so this post represents very preliminary first impressions, which are usually all about being tremendously excited. So be warned.

Friday, March 9, 2012

More on identity matters

Soft Granite

I've been mulling these identity issues I mentioned in my previous post a little. I had a thoughtful conversation about it on Twitter with NellaLou and Mumon, and Mumon posted about it on his blog a bit later, and then Barbara O'Brien picked up on it. Funny how that sort of thing happens; I didn't think that particular post would be particularly interesting to anyone, as it was more of a somewhat self-indulgent post-zazenkai mind-state dump than anything thoroughly considered.

Also, Barbara pointed out that what we called jukai isn't what's usually called jukai in Zen; the ritual that was actually performed is usually known as fusatsu.

Yet the identity issue did come up—even if peripherally—in Kanja sensei's talk, and she did most definitely call the ritual jukai. I also read up on jukai on Wikipedia (and some other places), and it's clear that usually this is the name of the ceremony associated with receiving the rakusu--that little bib Zennies sometimes like to wear. As far as I've gathered, the procedure for getting the rakusu in our tradition is very much as Wikipedia describes the preparation for jukai, and I believe there is a ritual associated with actually receiving it too.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Community, Jukai, and Zazenkai Rambling

Make Capitalism History
And End to War and Poverty / Make Capitalism History, Helsinki, 2005

If there's one major development in 2011, it's got to be the rebirth of civil society. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movements, people have been getting together to get stuff done in a way that hasn't been seen since, well, the 1960's, perhaps. This has been messy, and not all of the communities being built have been exactly nice—for example, I'm not too thrilled about the emergence of reactionary populist movements in Europe, even in Finland. But you gotta take the bad with the good. It's all part of the same ferment.

The emergence of communities is a fascinating process. There's an illusion of making something new; then an illusion of participating in something stable and persistent; perhaps eventually an illusion of something that seemed to be stable and persistent suddenly disintegrating. Communities are like onions, or like stews; there are layers within layers, chunks among chunks. There are strictly orthodox revolutionary vanguards; there are big-tent mass movements; there are communities of communities. There are cliques, hegemonies, orthodoxies, disputes, overt and covert infighting, competition for status, respect, power. We humans are really all about community. Without it, we're nothing, or almost nothing.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Cold Remedies

Repair

Over the past two weeks or so I have, as a friend of mine eloquently expresses it, been beset by the crud. That is, either a particularly vicious cold, or seasonal influenza. Unpleasant in any case. I'm mostly over it by now, but my wife has it. This has given us ample opportunity to experiment with a variety of cold remedies. None of them, alas, have cured the crud, but many have made it a good deal more tolerable.

I haven't discovered anything new, but have tried out a whole bunch of old remedies. These worked for me.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Too Many Explanations

Yeni Cami Cat
This cat is conscious. Discuss.

My previous post sparked an unexpected and irritating discussion regarding physicalist versus nonphysicalist explanations of consciousness. I vowed I wouldn't go there, but there you are, I can't help myself. Because I'm really unhappy with all attempts to explain it that I've come across.

A bit of background.

In my early teens, I did a massive amount of reading into paranormal phenomena. I believed every word of it, too. Then I started reading up on the skeptical literature related to them, and pretty soon all of that belief was gone. For a few years, I hung out on alt.atheism, sci.skeptic, and a few other forums dedicated to debunking flim-flammery of all sorts. Then that got old too.

Then at some point I realized that actually those purely materialist, neurophysicalist explanations of consciousness—emergent materialism and all that—don't really explain anything either. They all end up as making perfect sense up to a certain point and then, poof! consciousness. That poof! is never even addressed. Instead, skeptics like to substitute some nonmaterialist explanation for it, and then tear that to pieces. It was good fun, too, but doesn't really help.

This is an attempt at writing up the reasons for my dissatisfaction with the various attempts at explaining consciousness—what it is, where it comes from, what it's for—that I've come across. Only at a very crude level, since there are so damn many when you drill down. So sit back and grab a beverage of your choice, 'cuz this is going to get long.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Altered States and Feng Shui

The Logical Endpoint of Sign War
There's a feng shui war on in the Hong Kong skyline...

I'm sick at home. Nothing serious, just a moderately nasty flu virus of some kind, with fever, aches and pains, and all the usual fun. In fact, I'm a good deal better today than yesterday, which is why I'm writing this here blog post.

My mind starts working funnily when I'm running a temperature. It becomes very very active, and something about my pattern-recognition wetware goes into overdrive. A quite a while ago I got a nasty stomach bug which prompted me to produce hundreds of naughty syllabic inversions from short phrases. You know, bucking a fox, that sort of thing. I don't remember any of them, but I had a witness so I wasn't just imagining it.

This time, I was obsessing about feng shui.

Feng shui isn't just about furniture arrangement. It's a system of geomancy; placing buildings, structures, roads, canals, and what have you in auspicious arrangements. I felt like I was just on the cusp of some great revelation. It had something to do with Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor. I realized that what he was actually doing was engraving a spell on the Earth, which laid the foundations of China. Those canals, walls, cities, and especially mausoleum (yin feng shui, see) was the whole point of the exercise.

Yeah, it felt more impressive when I was actually thinking it. I'll let you know if there's any progress.

But it did bring home to me once again how deeply intertwined our physical and mental states really are. Yet the gap between neuronal activity and phenomena of consciousness remains unbridged. We're constantly learning more about how the brain/mind interaction works, but we're no closer to discovering what the mind is.

I kinda like it that way.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Municipal Government

Lapland Landscape with Power Line
Lapland Landscape with Power Line, Muonio, 2010

Last week, the Finnish government dropped a bit of a bomb. They presented their plan for reforming municipal government in Finland. That would entail cutting down the number of municipalities from around 350 to around 70. That's a pretty huge change, and it will certainly not happen exactly as they're planning. Municipalities are tied to local identity, which makes such a reform explosive to start with; what's more, there are going to be losers as well as winners, and the losers are going to fight against it tooth and nail.

It got me thinking about municipal government. It doesn't get the press of international or national government, which is a shame because it has more impact on people's everyday life—and individual people have much more power to affect it, too. I discovered that I'm actually woefully uninformed about how municipal government even works in Finland. Yet this is important enough that I think I ought to have some opinion about it.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Inventory of Political Positions

Tea

I follow politics a quite a bit, and have opinions about lots of stuff. I sometimes wish I had a nice, coherent framework to plug everything in, but that's regrettably not the case. In fact, I rarely even take stock of my political positions as a whole, rather than simply looking at things individually. Therefore this post—an attempt at making an inventory of sorts, of that part of the furniture of my mind that is labeled 'politics.'

Who knows, I might even come up with more posts on specific topics, since this is a very high-level overview.

Self-indulgent, but then what are blogs for?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Coffee

Girl Making Espresso
Girl Making Espresso, Helsinki, 2005

I really like coffee. At the office, it's the usual barely-drinkable drip stuff, although because of the sheer volume being consumed, from freshly-opened packages, so it's not actually rank unless it happens to be the dregs in the pot.

At home, however, I brew my coffee with a moka pot. There are a number of reasons for this choice. My wife doesn't drink coffee, and usually I only make one cup a day, in the mornings, sometimes two on weekends. That rules out devices that need to be used more or less continuously to work. Our kitchen isn't huge, which means that an espresso machine would take up rather a lot of space for little utility.

Real coffee snobs seem to look down on moka pots. I say they're deeply if understandably misguided.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Blue Remembered Earth: A Book Review

Martian Landscape

I've been reading a good deal of new sci-fi lately, thanks to the efforts of the generation of authors writing stuff sometimes lumped under the New Weird and New Space Opera headlines. These include Iain M. Banks, China Miéville, Ken MacLeod, Hal Duncan, Hannu Rajaniemi, and a relatively recent acquaintance, Alastair Reynolds. I'm having just as much fun as when I first started reading sci-fi. Like, when I was eight, or thereabouts.

Alastair Reynolds's latest novel is titled Blue Remembered Earth, and it's something of a departure from his previous work. Reynolds is known for sweeping, epic, galaxy-wide (and occasionally even intergalactic) space opera. An additional twist comes from his professional background as a physicist: while the science is often wildly speculative, it manages to stay within the bounds of the barely possible better than most space opera, classic or New. In particular, he sticks to c as the cosmic speed limit. So no faster-than-light travel and no causality violations. Yet somehow he still manages to write up galaxy-wide ancient precursor civilizations, wars that span light-years and aeons, space battles that destroy entire solar systems, and the usual good, clean, space opera fun.

Blue Remembered Earth is painted on a smaller canvas. It is set only about a century and a half in our future, within the Solar System. Perhaps he finally ran out of epic in House of Suns. The more familiar locations, scope, cultures, and characters of the relatively near future are a welcome change of direction.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Socially Engaged Buddhism, Again

Thin ice

Uku of Kajo Zendo recently wondered why there's so little discussion among Buddhists about concrete ways to alleviate suffering in society, exhorting Buddhist groups in Finland to get off their incense-perfumed asses and do something about it. Some discussion followed, and his polemic was even cited in Kotimaa, the Christian news site. All kinds of ideas came up, including a rather endearing one of getting together to knit wrist-warmers for the homeless. (Maybe they could knit some homilies on them. "Form is emptiness" on the left one, "Emptiness is form" on the right. That oughta cheer 'em right up.)

In other words, he discovered Socially Engaged Buddhism, as previously introduced by Bernie Glassman and several others.

I'm not a big fan of Socially Engaged Buddhism. Plain ol' socially engaged Buddhism is another matter. In fact, I think that a Buddhism that doesn't eventually nudge you to engage concretely with suffering around you is a pretty shabby kind of Buddhism.

Brad Warner has already addressed the question of why there's so little discussion of concrete ways to help people among Zennies much better than I ever could, so I'll consider some of the other points raised instead.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Enlightenment, Commonalities, and Differences

Found Ensō on Formica

We had a zazenkai last Sunday. It was very well attended; lots of new faces as well as familiar ones. Ari held a dharma talk about the notion of enlightenment, the way it's seen in our tradition, and some comparisons with other traditions, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. There was some conversation about the topic over tea as well.

It got me thinking.

One feature of Buddhist practice is exploration of a dimension of human experience that's often labeled 'mystical.' It consists of subjective, internal experiences that are extremely difficult to describe. There's art and there are descriptions that may or may not seem familiar, but conventional categories break down pretty quickly. It becomes increasingly problematic to say anything at all about them. People can compare notes, as it were, but I think this process only works at all face to face. Second-hand accounts—written down, sung, painted, whatever—are suggestive, but easily misunderstood.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Solidarity with protest against SOPA and PIPA

This blog is dark today in solidarity with the protest against SOPA and PIPA. They may be American bills, but they affect all of us. Stop them. That is all.