Monday, April 30, 2007


Or as it is more commonly known, emptiness. According to Buddhist teaching, everything one encounters in life is empty of an absolute identity, permanence, or 'self'. This is because everything is inter-related and mutually dependent . Nothing is ever wholly self-sufficient or independent. Is this nihilistic? Quite the opposite. The Buddha taught that nihilism was a delusion whioch makes infinite sense once you realize that everything is related. There is no essential difference between you and me or between me and the guy sleeping in a box under the bridge.In Buddhism, a realization of the emptiness of phenomena enables from the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth. As Robert Thurman noted, “voidness does not mean nothingness, but rather that all things lack intrinsic reality, intrinsic objectivity, intrinsic identity or intrinsic referentiality. Lacking such static essence or substance does not make them not exist - it makes them thoroughly relative."

This relativity of all phenomena contrasts to materialism, the notion that phenomena exist in their own right, in and of themselves. Thus, the philosophy of the Buddha is seen as the Middle Way between nihilism and materialism.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Friday Editorial

I don’t know about you all but I am getting SICK of the freaking weather this “spring”. A couple of nice days and then back to dreary cold rain. If I wanted to live in Seattle I would have moved to Seattle. Arrrgh.

In other news, the corporation counsel attorneys were back in court lying through their teeth about the motivations of the police department in regards to their video taping of legitimate political protests. It is unnerving how these attorneys can abandon any shred of dignity to argue in support of a position that is clearly a work of legal fiction. Under Ray Kelley the NYPD has become a reactionary police department which is hell bent on snuffing out any first amendment expression in this city. It’s bad enough that New York is already turning into a giant mall complete with TGI Fridays and big box stores, but our City government apparently won’t be satisfied until we are all walking in straight lines on the sidewalk and speaking only when spoken to by a police officer.

Near as I can figure out, the City attorneys are arguing, with a straight face, that the NYPD needs the freedom to spy on critical mass bike rides because they think there may be terrorists mixed in among the vegan anarchists. What, are they afraid that one of these kids is going to go postal and beat on the mayor with an organic carrot? Their legal argument is disingenuous at best. The City agreed to have the police department’s rules incorporated into the Handschau agreement. It was only when they realized there was a penalty for violating said rules that they want to weasel out of them. The NYPD has to realize that their responsibility is to the citizens and that despite their heroic activities on 911 they will not be granted unfettered discretion to spy on any political group that takes to the streets to express its views. I live in New York BECAUSE the streets are full of crazy people. Once you take away a New Yorker’s right to mouth off to the government you might as well be living in Nebraska.

This is all especially irksome to me because I am developing a genuine liking for Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Yes, he is a billionaire who was way to obsessed at one point with building a football stadium on the upper west side, but in recent months he has put forth the most daring and comprehensive vision for the future of this City since Robert Moses was parks commissioner. I am very pleased at the proposed rebuild of McCarren Park pool and the general infusion of cash to the parks department. I also agree that congestion pricing has to happen in Manhattan and I am ecstatic that construction of the 2nd Avenue subway is finally happening after years of delay. The 311 line was also a stroke of genius. But Ray Kelly and his fascist army must go, as should Michael Cardozo the City’s chief attorney. This can be both a beautiful safe City and one where everyone can express their views without fear of being followed around and locked up. New York cannot succumb to America’s paranoia and still be its shining, albeit slightly dingy, City on the hill. Happy week-end everyone.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Recommended Reading

For those of you who are looking for a little New York flavor to add to your days might I recommend, Overheard in New York is a sort of urban voyer blog published by S. Morgan Friedman that documents bits of conversation heard by passersby in the City who submit them to the website for publication. The site has been around for a while but it never gets old. A couple of samples from today’s postings:

Student on phone: All I have to say about being friends with Jesus is that unlimited fish sandwiches and wine doesn't sound like a bad deal.--NYU

Crazy guy: Praise Jesus! But stay outta my way -- I will stab you.--W 17th St

You get the idea. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Yoga and Buddhism

Yoga and Buddhism are sister traditions which evolved in the same spiritual culture of ancient India. In the west, Zen is often set alongside Yoga and the two schools of meditation display some interesting similarities. In Zen communities, meditation, cooperative living and a personal relationship with the teacher as a direct source of spiritual power (and evolution of the disciple as a consequence of that relationship) are central. At is purest Zen meditation is a total state of focus leading to a total unification of both mind and body. This is very similar to what I understand Yoga practice to be about.

Also, some of the principles from the Vijnana Bhairava are similar to Zen teachings. The Vijnana Bhairava is a 4,000 year old text which contains the essence of a number of tantric yoga teachings.The philosophy behind the Vijnana Bhairava is that that there is a spaciousness in which everything occurs. It's not that when you get enlightened you'll realize that this world is the illusory world and the real one is the world of spaciousness. It's a nondual perspective that says that the spaciousness is everything and in that spaciousness is everything. Some of the verses talk about the space between the in-breath and the out-breath. In yoga you can tune into that, or rest your attention in the vertebral column, vertebra by vertebra. Again, very similar to the focus of attention when practicing zazen.

This connection between traditions deserves a fuller exploration but I have work to do so it will have to wait for another day.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday's Editorial

Happy week-end readers. The Patriot has drifted a bit from his earlier avowed mission to make the Republicans look alike a bunch of fascist assholes. Frankly, at this point they don’t need my help. The old political adage that you don’t commit a homicide against someone who is effectively committing suicide rings true again. Unfortunately, watching Alberto Gonzalez get a good ass fucking on CNN hardly makes up for the inexcusable waste of life in Iraq. I have never seen a more deluded bunch of cranks in my life; willing to hold on to their twisted ideology at the expense of 3000 American and who knows how many Iraqi lives. I remember standing watching lower Manhattan burn a few days after 911 and having a conversation with my friend Lee about how the legal community should respond. We both agreed, even at that early date, that the biggest danger to the Republic was going to come from within. Well meaning patriots (small p) and some not too well meaning patriots used the death of 3000 Americans to push their own agendas which, as hindsight is making abundantly clear, was not in the national interest. The Republicans may be on the ropes about the conduct of the war, but they have succeeded in the public relations war. No one anymore in the main stream media questions why, in the aftermath of an attack by 20 Saudi Arabian religious zealots, the United States responded by invading a secular country who had no connection with Islamic terrorism. Democrats gave the administration a pass on that question. Every minute George Bush and the rest of his right-wing Christian evangelical freaks remain out of jail is a blot on American history and the repercussions will be felt for years. So enjoy the nice spring weather this week-end and consider voting Green next election. Back to Buddhism on Monday.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Leggo My Ego

Like an addiction to alcohol or drugs, ego addiction can cause one to view the world with distorted perceptions. When we place ourselves and our egos at the center of the universe we continually perceive the world in terms of what will bring us pleasure and pain, in terms of what will gratify our own egos. Because of this strong clinging to ego-consciousness, attachment/desire, anger/hatred arise and repeatedly gain strength.

The ego feeds on activity, which brings it strength. The more we solidify our views of like and dislike, attachment and greed, the stronger our ego becomes and the more concrete our selves seem. The ego depends on desire to grow. The ego is projected desire, and desire is projected ego. The more we go on generating desire the ego seems very real. When desiring stops the ego then appears as an illusion.

So is desire fundamentally bad? Not exactly. Buddhism has no problem with say, the experience of joy, it is the attachment to joy that causes the problems. To observe something beautiful is ok, to cling to the experience is suffering. So the natural “desire” of the universe toward pleasure and away from pain is outside of the concept of “desire” which brings suffering? A seeming paradox. We cannot eliminate desire without desiring to do so. I guess it isn't really accurate to say that the root of Buddhism is to remove desire. A better way to think of it is decreasing unhealthy desires that lead to bad behavior and incorrect thinking about how the world works. Plus, without any desire whatsoever it would be hard to get anything done. We desire to take out the garbage because the alternative is a stinky kitchen. This is ok, beneficial even.

In the end, the English word “desire” has too broad a definition to bring clarity to the Buddhist way of ridding of one's desires to be egoless and thus free of suffering. Better to use the phrase 'to be free of attachment’ because it better defines the cause of suffering.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


The Bodhisattva Manjushri is said to have the power of discriminating wisdom. He can discriminate between correct and incorrect views and between beneficial and non-beneficial actions that must be taken on one's spiritual path. He holds a sword that vanquishes ignorance. Manjushri's sword is also considered a sword of quick detachment and a symbol of enlightened will. It cuts through dualistic thinking.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


It occurred to me that all this chit chat on non-duality and subjugation of the ego might lead the casual reader to wonder whether Buddhists are moral relativists. After all, if everything is essentially the same and the distinction between good and evil can be reconciled as dualistic thought then isn’t everything morally ambiguous?

In Buddhist thought, lying behind the foundation of the moral precepts (yes, even the Buddhists have a 10 commandments of sorts) are the principles of equality and reciprocity. What are they?

Equality in this context means that all living beings are equal in their essential attitudes. All living beings want to be happy. They fear pain, death and suffering. All want to live and to enjoy happiness and security. Naturally this includes ourselves. If we are equal in this respect with all other sentient beings then how could we treat them differently than ourselves? Sounds familiar, no? On the basis of this equality of all sentient beings, we are encouraged to act with the awareness of reciprocity Reciprocity means that just as we would not like to be killed, robbed, abused and so forth, so would all other living beings not like to have these things happen to them. Given these principles of equality and reciprocity, it is not hard to see how they create a foundation for the rules of good conduct.

It is therefore an easy step to understanding the concept of compassion. Compassion, as the term is understood in Buddhist thought, is an unselfish, detached emotion which gives one a sense of urgency in wanting to help others. From a Buddhist perspective, helping others to reduce their physical or mental suffering is very good. But remember, it is of the utmost importance to have equal understanding and sympathy for both your enemies and your dearest loved ones. Selective compassion is dualistic and ego-centered and leads to bad Karma and all of that stuff. Another day we can talk about the problems inherent in all living beings desiring to be happy and the problems caused by that desire. Ok, enough for now.

The Empty Mirror

Two books I recommend which explain the basics of Buddhism in a narrative context are The Empty Mirror and a Glimpse of Nothingness. From Amazon: "Nearly 30 years ago, Janwillhewlm van de Wetering, who would later achieve fame as a mystery novelist, published The Empty Mirror, about his experiences at a Zen monastery in Japan in the mid-60s. In 1975, he published a sequel, A Glimpse of Nothingness, about his stint at the Moon Springs Hermitage in Maine…” From the original Time magazine review: “What makes this account extraordinary is that the book contains none of the convert's irritating certitude." Indeed, it contains quite the opposite.

I read both books in high school and return to them periodically over the years. I suppose what I like the most is that Van de Wetering is a skeptic at heart and approaches the somewhat mystical aura surrounding the quest for enlightenment with a jaundiced eye. The Empty Mirror was his first book. In the summer of 1958 Jan-San showed up at the door of a Zen monastery in Kyoto Japan, knowing no one, not speaking Japanese, and without a really good idea what he was doing there. Humorous misunderstandings and situations ensue. A Glimpse of Nothingness finds VanDer Wetering at a Zendo in Morgan’s Bay in Maine where he reconnects with an American protégé of the old master who died a few years earlier. This book chronicles Jan-San’s encounters with a variety of American mystics and seekers who travel to the Maine north woods to find their Buddha nature. You can order the books here and here. I would caution you against reading the third volume in the trilogy, Afterzen: Experiences of a Zen Student Out on His Ear, which was written some 25 years later, until you read the other two. It’s better to read them in order to see the development of Jan-San’s consciousness.

Monday, April 16, 2007


Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. What on earth is one to make of that statement? One of the central texts of the Zen school is the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is a condensation, or the "heart," of all the Prajna Paramita (perfection of perfect wisdom) literature which originally appeared between 200 b.c. and 400a.d. In Buddhism, the term "sutra" refers generally to canonical scriptures that are regarded as records of the oral teachings of Gautama Buddha.

The Heart Sutra deals with the non-duality of form and emptiness, which for the basis of almost every Zen koan. It is the placing of things into categories and assigning positive and negative value to them which can give rise to suffering in the mind. Butterflies are beautiful but cockroaches are bad, that sort of thing. The Tibetans, as usual, have come up with a good analysis for how the mind sorts and assigns value to objects and ideas. They have defined something known as the "feeling aggregate" which is defined as 'an omnipresent factor of the mind which labels experiences into three categories: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral' When the label of pleasant is given to an object, we develop an attachment to it. When the label of unpleasant is given to an object, we develop aversion, and sometimes even anger or hatred. When the label of neutral is given to an object, we often don't care about the object or even ignore it.

Once we have established the opinion that something is pleasant or unpleasant, it takes an awful lot of evidence before we are willing to change our mind about it, if we are prepared to change our mind at all. Remember the saying, “there's only one chance to make a first impression” We become very attached to our perceptions and our labels. When we perceive something, a person or an object, the mind immediately splits into inner and outer, self and other, subject and object. In simply perceiving the object, there is no problem. But we can't leave well enough alone. Not only do we categorize but we begin to judge and assign value.

Of course much of this is grounded in our egos. We are so sure of out opinions that we can’t accept the idea that we might be wrong, or that we might be holding an opinion for reasons that have nothing to do with anything operating in our minds on a conscious level. How could we possibly be wrong? They’re OUR opinions. Again ego begets suffering.

Do you see the inherent problem with being attached to something as ephemeral and subjective as our opinions in a world where nothing is permanent? The very ideas of "good" and "bad" are completely subjective creations of our minds. These opinions are often founded on nothing more than a first glance and an almost automatic labeling process. Engaging in this sort of classifying and judging is known in Buddhism as dualistic thinking.

Buddhism in general and the Heart Sutra in particular, try to point out the Karmic consequences of living within this duality of right and wrong. As well as pointing the way out of this mental state through the use of meditation and koan study, for example. It should be pointed out that technically there can be no such thing as a nondual perspective only a realization of or nonduality. One cannot accurately claim to experience nonduality, because the concept of experience depends on a subject-object distinction, which is, alas, itself a duality.
This is a very simplistic discussion of non-duality and will need to be expounded on in the weeks ahead.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


So what’s wrong with desire anyway? With Buddhism’s focus on desire and attachment as negative mind-sets, one could be forgiven for lumping Buddhism amongst those monotheistic religions which serve a heavy portion of guilt along with their sins. If suffering is caused by desire and we continue to desire, we are constantly creating suffering are we not? Maybe there are different kinds of desire. Maybe what we think of as suffering isn’t really suffering. According to the Darmapada, life is suffering. All aspects of life. Birth is suffering, aging, sickness, death, separation from what is pleasing is suffering and of course not getting what you want is suffering. Suffering is further defined as “this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.” On the surface this sounds kind of problematic. After all, as human beings we are driven by our desires. It is because of desire that we achieve great things. It is how we are capable of great passion and depth of feeling. But because the objects of our desire are transient, as all things are, their loss is inevitable and suffering will necessarily follow.

There is an element of desire in all human relationships. Whether this desire stands as a cause of future suffering and negative karma is completely related to the origin of the desire. In other words, does the desire have its origin in the ego. This is an important question because suffering is always, ultimately, rooted in an excess of self-concern.

"Self-cherishing makes us feel depressed whenever our wishes are not fulfilled, we fail in our ambitions, or our life does not turn out the way we planned. If we examine all the times we have been miserable we shall discover that they are characterized by an excessive concern for our own welfare." (The Dalai Lama, Eight Steps To Happiness, Tharpa, 2000, p.86)

Well, that will knock you out off your pity pot. We are not unhappy simply because the world is unjust, but because we worry about ourselves too much. As an example, the pain and suffering which may arise in romantic relationships is probably rooted in an exaggerated attachment to our own happiness; the lover is seen as a vital source of happiness and we feel anxiety, depression and despair at the prospect, or reality, of losing that happiness. So what is the way out of this narcissism? Less ego. Place the other person at the center and want nothing but the best for them. This takes the selfishness out of the equation and allows a more mature relationship to develop. This goes for all types of human relationships, not just romantic ones.

This is pretty tough to do. We are so wrapped up in ourselves that we often don’t even notice that there are other people around. I was reading an article in the City section of the Times today which discussed why New Yorkers often don’t see people they know on the street even when they walk right past them: “Even when we’re not attached to I-Pods, we are perpetually preoccupied. It’s the same look we affect when we’re jogging or working out: grim, purposeful, completely given over to a higher cause-ourselves”. In order to fix the world’s karma, not to mention our own we need to pay a lot less attention to our own higher causes and a lot more to those of the people around us. That's how to break the causal chain. Peace.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Tastes Like Chicken

This Week’s News Round-Up:

Scientists recently performed genetic testing on a bit of protein retrieved from the thigh bone of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and have determined that the mighty predator is actually a distant cousin to the barnyard chicken. How the mighty have fallen. Inevitably one wonders what the darn thing tasted like and whether those little arms would have taken the place of Hot Wings on a Hooters menu had the chain been around 500 million years ago. I think you would almost be compelled to order them extra spicy.

Speaking of science, Dubya recently reiterated his opposition to easing restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research saying that “In our day there is a temptation to manipulate life in ways that do not respect the humanity of the person," Bush said Friday. "When that happens, the most vulnerable among us can be valued for their utility to others instead of their own inherent worth." Clearly Bush reserves the bulk of his somewhat dubious conceptualization of compassion for cell clusters while excluding, say, the soldiers in Iraq from similar consideration.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that the US Government has pressed local law enforcement into service in the endless war against “terror”, now they’re going outside the species. For several years the Navy has been using marine mammals, mostly bottlenose dolphins, to locate mines and drop flashing beacons around targets. The Navy says animals like dolphins and sea lions are its best line of defense against attacks from the sea. "Biologically, they are better than anything we have ever made," said Mike Rothe, head of science for the Navy's marine mammal program. Is it just me or are you a little put off by the fact that the United States Navy thinks that our cousins from the water world are more effective than the ridiculously expensive Trident submarines? I suppose we can ex those out of the budget now.

In entertainment news, the managers of Lincoln theater in Nebraska say Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham's "diva-like behavior" doomed his concert there this week. Hey Lindsay, if my career was on such a downward spiral that I were playing the Lincoln theatre in Omaha I wouldn’t be too bitchy about the crudite selection in the dressing room. (Pssst, people really want to see Stevie Nicks more than you anyway).

And finally from the world of sports: Earlier this month a commercial fishing boat hauled in a giant rockfish estimated to be about a century old. The 44-inch, 60-pound female shortraker rockfish was caught last month by the catcher-processor Kodiak Enterprise as it trawled for pollock 2,100 feet below the surface, south of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. That poor bastard fish. 90 years swimming around in the Bering Sea only to be hauled ignomously out of the water by the guys from the Deadliest Catch and displayed like a museum piece. I suppose a joke about tartar sauce would be sadly inappropriate here.
Have a nice week-end everyone.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Freedom of Speech

The principle of freedom of speech promotes dialogues on public issues, but it is most relevant to speech which is unpopular at the time it is made. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees, in theory, that speech and expression will be protected from governmental censorship. In order for the protections of the First Amendment to apply there must be some state action or nexus between the government and the speech sought to be suppressed. Practically speaking this means that speech in the private arena is not subject to the same protections as where the government has an interest.

The problem with this scenario is the pernicious self-censorship practiced by the corporate oligarchs that run the mainstream media. I don’t know how many of you remember Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. From Wikipedia: “Fahrenheit 451 takes place in an unspecified future time, possibly in the 21st or 22nd century, in a hedonistic and rabidly anti-intellectual America that has completely abandoned self-control and bans the possession of books. People are now only entertained by in-ear radio and an interactive form of television. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman, certain that his job—burning books, and the houses that hold them, and persecuting those who own them, is the right thing to do.” Sound familiar to anyone? Of course in Fahrenheit 451 it was society, not government, that burned books of its own volition, because special-interest groups and other “minorities” objected to books that offended them. Soon, books all began to look the same, as writers tried to avoid offending anybody. Kind of like modern day news broadcasts and television. The result? A self-limited range of acceptable opinion imposed by the very people who would be most upset if that same censorship was imposed from above by the United States government.

The foregoing is a long way of arguing that folks like Imus and Howard Stern are healthy for a society which purports to believe in a free exchange of ideas; I don’t think they should be censored, no matter what they say as long as it isn’t “fire” in a crowded theater. Personally I find the invective and hate speech spewed by O’Reilly and his ilk on a daily basius to be far more damaging to the country’s psyche that anything a senile Imus gould spit out on his worst day. Banning comments because they're offensive, which is the practical effect of running Imus out of town on a rail, is censorship whether coming from a public official or a private cabal. Unfortunately the government has gotten us to do it's dirty work. The following is from a letter posted on Salon in response to an article about Imus, the media, and censorship which says it better than I can:

“We have more important things to worry about than Don Imus doing his old routine. I'm more concerned about the CBC Institute agreeing to moderate debates on the Fox channel, whose commentators chronically belittle and ridicule people of color. I'm more concerned about the paucity of people of color on the airwaves and in the media who write columns and host news shows. I'm more concerned about the availability of opportunity for qualified people of color than I am about the feeble remarks of Don Imus.” –Tanmack. Well said.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Happy Easter/Passover

In my never ending quest to understand the world’s religions I hosted a Passover Seder in my home on Saturday night. I also though that since Jack will probably be attending the JCC daycare at some point it might be a good idea to acquaint myself with some of the customs and rituals so I don’t sound like a moron when he starts asking me questions. Granted, we held it on the wrong night and there was only one Jewish person there out of five, but we used an instruction book with the prescribed rituals and I think did a passable job of it. I didn’t realize how much work goes into cooking for one of these things; by the time we finished in the kitchen it was after 10:00pm and well after midnight by the time we finished breaking matzo and eating.

What struck me about the ritual is how deeply symbolic everything is, from the food to the “four questions” to the recitation of the haggadah, or Exodous story. Jack seemed to enjoy himself, although the lateness of the proceedings threw off his bedtime and he was up most of the night reciting his own chants. Lack of sleep seemed to be the rule this week-end for both of us. I hope you all had a nice holiday, whichever one you celebrated.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Pandora's Box

A friend of mine recently hipped me onto a web site/application called Pandora. If you’re like me you are always looking for new and interesting music, but often at not your exposure to new tunes comes randomly or by accident; i.e. you overhear a snippet of a song on the radio and try to find it on I-Tunes. Then an application like I-Tunes will offer you a listing of what other customers who purchased your particular song also purchased. It’s a neat way to expand your listening but it can be frustrating since the I-Tunes algorithm makes some bizarre picks sometimes.

This is where Pandora steps in. Pandora is the end application of something called the Music Genome Project. Somewhere in the vast world of the internet there are 50 people sitting in a room listening to every song that has ever been recorded. From the web-site: “The typical music analyst working on the Music Genome Project has a four-year degree in music theory, composition or performance, has passed through a selective screening process and has completed intensive training in the Music Genome's rigorous and precise methodology and procedures. To qualify for the work, analysts must have a firm grounding in music theory, including familiarity with a wide range of styles and sounds. All analysis is done on location.” While the analysts listen they are studying and collecting hundreds of musical details on every song including melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics and some 395 other attributes. When you input your favorite songs or artists into Pandora, the Genome Project scans its data base of analyzed music to find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice. These are then arrayed in a radio station type playlist. After each song is played you vote either thumbs up or down and Pandora refines its search and picks the next song based on your input on the previous one. If it's not quite right you can tell it more and it will get better for you. The algorithm fine tunes itself with each choice and what you end up with is invariably music that you didn’t know about before but is pretty much to your tastes.

If nothing else Pandora is a good way to expand your music collection. Each song that is played also has a link to Amazon or I-Tunes so you can go purchase the title after listening to it. Give it a shot, its pretty freaky.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Music III

I think I’m going to chuck my identity as a political gadfly and become a music critic. It is so much more interesting than following the minute machinations of the power elite. Commenting on politics is like discussing vanilla ice cream. No surprises. Oh well, I go through these phases…

Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver have to be one of the tightest bluegrass ensembles to grace the scene in recent years. Their current album, There’s More Behind The Picture Than The Wall is a tour de force of tight harmonies and amphetamine fast solos. If it doesn’t get you off the couch dancing then you have no soul (and may be a buddhist). There's an otherworldly dimension to "The Phone Call.” Lawson sings lead on that one, and according to Amazon, “ sounds close to the classic country of George Jones on the title track.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a nice vocal.

Lawson began his professional career in 1963, playing banjo with Jimmy Martin's Sunny Mountain Boys. In 1966, he began an association with J.D. Crowe, first playing guitar but soon moving to mandolin. He joined the Country Gentlemen in 1971 and remained a member until 1979. In 1979, Lawson left the Country Gentlemen and formed his own group, Quicksilver, which has become kind of a farm team for bluegrass, producing talent that has gone on to play with Kentucky Thunder and IIIrd Time Out, among others. His catalog is heavily gospel influenced but the recent record is more secular. Worth a couple of listens.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

More Music

So I’ve been listening to the latest Neil Young release, Live at Massey Hall 1971. Considering the technology available at the time, the live solo acoustic recording is pristine, as is Neil’s guitar playing. Massey Hall in Toronto was a brief stop on a long tour where Neil debuted a number of new songs, including Old Man and Needle and the Damage Done. The concert was held prior to the release of either of those songs on the Harvelt album. In Neil’s own words, "...I've written so many new (songs) that I can't think of anything else to do with them other than sing 'em." And sing them he does; his vocals, guitar and piano playing are almost hypnotic in intensity. The medly of Man Needs a Maid and Heart of Gold is unearthly. The between songs patter is alone almost worth the price of the Album. The CD package I ordered also came with a DVD with live footage from the concert. I haven’t watched it yet, but putting a visual to the guitar work is something I am eagerly anticipating.

Reincarnation and Indra's Net

The notion of reincarnation first appeared in Hindu scriptures in the Upanishads, a series of moral and philosophical texts which came into existence about 800BC. (Hindu’s oldest religious texts, the Vedas, are curiously devoid of any mention of the concept.) This was some 300 years before the historical Buddha walked the earth and indeed the concept of reincarnation predates both Buddhism and Hinduism. The principal difference between the Hindu and Buddhist conceptualizations of reincarnation is that the Hindus believe in the immortality of the soul and the ability of this soul to move between physical bodies after death, while the Buddhists believe that there is no irreducible "self" tying these lives together; for the Buddhist all things are subject to dissolution, including all the components of the human person and personality. In Hinduism, the concept of reincaration is closely tied in with the idea that one’s karma determines the type of reincarnation. For Buddhists, since there is no permanent and unchanging (identify) there can be no transmigration of the self to a new life. Nevertheless, something must cross into a new life or else it would be pointless for a Buddhist to believe in reincarnation at all.

From Wikipedia: “Buddhism teaches that what is reborn is not the person but that one moment gives rise to another and that that momentum continues, even after death. It is a more subtle concept than the usual notion of reincarnation, reflecting the sophisticated Buddhist concept of personality existing (even within one's lifetime) without a "soul".

Both Buddhists and Hindus believe in the concept of samsara. Samsara is most easily understood in Hinduism as an ignorance of the self and a belief that happiness can be found in the pursuit of temporal pleasures. The pursuit of such pleasures creates desire for more existence in the individual thereby leading to the soul being trapped in the cycle of death and rebirth. Buddhists have a more nuanced view and see Samsara less as a place than a problem of perception. The worlds of Samsara and Nirvana are not two but are actually different sides of the same reality. It isn’t the world of temporal pleasures that locks us onto the karmic wheel, rather, it is our attachment to the self and the elaborate constructs we create to order our world which cause desire and subsequent rebirth.

Of course as interesting as this stuff is, all spiritual or philosophical systems are ultimately useless unless they lead the aspirant to some sort of self-realization. Westerners are fairly lazy in their approach to their spiritual traditions. After all, unlike some Buddhist sects, faith based systems do not require of their followers much in the way of exhaustive effort and grinding discipline. We may think we understand the teachings of our Christian religion but believing in the central teachings of Christ, going to church once a week and repeting rote prayers merely scratches the surface. To be sure there is a rich Christian mystical tradition, but it is veiled from the average churchgoer and rarely engaged by the faith’s adherents. I have always felt more comfortable within the ideological frameworks of the East because they simply make more sense to me. The universe is ordered and perfect as it is without me being required to believe in an engaged diety who has a master plan which we cannot hope to understand. Every time someone tells me that “God has his reasons” I want to scream. I’d rather embrace the metaphor of Indra’s Net; envision a vast net where at each juncture there lies a jewel which reflects all the other jewels in the cosmic matrix. Every jewel represents an individual life form, atom, cell or unit of consciousness. Each jewel, in turn, is intrinsically and intimately connected to all the others; thus, a change in one gem is reflected in all the others. The true meaning of Indra's net is that you cannot damage one strand of the universal web without damaging the others or setting off a cascade effect of destruction. By the same token the compassionate and the constructive interventions a person makes or does can also produce a ripple effect of beneficial action. Thus we are brought back to our karma and our actions. Ok, enough of this for today.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Since I’ve taken to “enjoying” a sandwich from the Subway franchise now and again, I’ve become curious about that Jared fellow and why he is still alive after eating nothing but chemically altered meat and vegetables for over a year while he was on the way to losing 245 pounds. I don’t know about you, but if I lost 245 pounds in a year from eating one company’s food product I’d wonder if I’d developed an aggressive tumor, certainly not consider the result a recipe for health and fitness. Nevertheless, Subway is cheap, relatively harmless and available every block or so in the downtown area so it is often a post-gym indulgence on days when I roll out of bed too late to make my own lunch. Plus, all that marketing hype tricks me into believing that I’m actually doing something good for my body by eating a portion controlled sandwich of off-color meat accompanied by baked Doritos and a diet coke. What I did not realize is that there a re a lot of people out there with very strong opinions about fast food. Some of them are quite funny. I encourage you to visit this site for a detailed discussion of the recent change the franchise made in the way it cuts its bread and the consternation this has caused among the brands numerous fans. There is also an article on the (thankfully) short-lived “Salmon Sub”. Bon appetite.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Instant Karma

Also known as The Law of Cause and Effect. The word Karma is translated from the Sanskrit as “action”. At its simplest, the concept of Karma stands for the proposition that actions have consequences, and the character of the action determines the type of consequence. Positive action produces positive effect, for example, negative action negative effect, and neutral action neutral effect. Whenever a human being acts, the actions have some sort of consequences, like a stone thrown into a pool of still water produces ripples which extend out in all directions until reaching the edge of the pool.

So when we act we produce something, let’s call it energy, which continues to exist and affect not only me as the actor but everyone around me. The effect of our actions, both positive and negative comes back to us in a myriad of ways. It is exceptionally difficult for the western mind to accept the fact that the bad things happening to us right now may have been born of the bad acts we ourselves performed in another life. As westerners reared in a monotheistic tradition we have been comforted by the concept of forgiveness and salvation and the potential to experience redemption through faith. The Hindu approach to Karma sort of gets around this dichotomy, but that is a discussion for another posting.

How we handle present conditions determines subsequent conditions. This is probably the most important aspect of the law of karma. What we are now determines what we will be. If something negative happens to us, the Buddhist approach is acceptance and equanimity. This is also difficult for the western mind. We are fixers and doers, not passive conduits for energy. But acceptance does not mean passivity. Bodhidharma, the great Master who brought Zen to China writes about living out this karmic life at its most difficult times, when adversity strikes:

"When those who search for the Path encounter adversity,they should think to themselves, In countless ages gone by, I've turned from the essential to the trivial and wandered through all manner of existence, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless transgressions. Now,though I do no wrong, I'm punished by my past. Neither gods nor men can foresee when an evil deed will bear its fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without complaint of injustice. The sutras say,When you meet with adversity don't be upset, because it makes sense. "

Acceptance should not be confused with passivity. Buddhist practice is has nothing to do with apathetic acceptance and withdrawal from society. We might need to accept the tough shit that comes our way but reacting to it by blaming others or getting angry or depressed we only compound the problem by creating even more negative karma. Accepting one’s circumstance does not mean liking it, nor does it foreclose the possibility of changing it.

If you were to imagine that Buddhism offers a way to step outside the wheel of cause and effect, you would be correct. That too will have to wait for another posting.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Attachment and Suffering

Naturally I have been thinking about the Buddhist idea of non-attachment and suffering lately. Buddhism teaches us the four noble truths: that life is suffering, that suffering is caused by attachment, that the cessation of suffering is possible, and that the cessation of suffering can be attained by the eightfold path. The eightfold path is also known as “the middle way” because it presents a path which lies between the extreme self-mortification of asceticism and the worldly pursuit of hedonism. A fine line indeed, if you’ve ever tried to walk it. The eight-fold path, in turn is divided into three parts. The first part consists of suggested behavior geared to manifest as “wisdom” including the concepts of right view and right intention. The second part sets up an ethical structure for the seeker by suggesting s/he engage in right speech, right action and right livelihood. The third part suggests paths to follow to increase mental development and includes right effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Clearly each aspect of the eightfold path and the four noble truths could be expounded upon at great length and indeed have been in the sutras and shastras (commentaries on the sutras) propounded since the historical Buddha walked the earth in present day India in 528 BC. Teachers in the Zen school have tried to simplify the teaching by emphasizing the concept of mindfulness and using it as a foundation upon which to build the superstructure of the rest of the teaching. Mindfulness happens to be a very pertinent teaching for stressed out westerners whose attention span can be measured in seconds. Many people originally attracted to Buddhism in the West often fail to keep up the practice because they enter the stream mistakenly thinking of mediation as a place where one can escape from one’s life, rather than the all out battle of universal mind versus ego which can be exhausting, if ultimately enlightening.

The Patriot comes from a strong Buddhist background, both academically speaking and by virtue of having practiced Zen meditation for a number of years. Due to my personal circumstances I have been looking closely at the idea that the cause of suffering is attachment. “Attachment” used to be translated in earlier works as “desire” specifically the desire to acquire and retain as well as the desire to exist. Attachment is another way of expressing desire, I suppose. If I were a good zen student I would seek out a recognized Roshi (Zen Master) who might give me a koan (question designed to lead to insight by pondering its essential meaning), and tell me to sit with it until the answer comes bubbling up from my subconscious. Koans deal with different historical events and factual situations but the questions presented therein are all along the lines of , “So what is it about this attachment that causes suffering” and, “who does the attaching and what is attached ?” These are not insignificant questions. If you are like me you have expectations about the way your life is unfolding. You make plans for the future based on certain seeming constants in your life. For example, you know that if you put $200 in your 401k every pay period you will have a certain amount of money when you retire. The assumption is that you will retain the same job, the company will be in existence for the next 30 years, you will be alive at retirement time, and the world will not be hit by an asteroid. Of course you have almost no control over any of it. But in order for us to exist without being in a constant state of panic about the things we cannot control, we erect elaborate mental structures and beliefs that allow us to function day to day. It is only when something drastic and unexpected happens that our structure is torn down and we realize how much of our self is wrapped up in our attachment to the world as we expect it to be. That, I suppose, is the place to begin investigating the concepts of attachment and suffering.

The facile approach to dealing with this unstable and impermanent world, to deny suffering, would be to limit our interactions with others, to forgo relationships and make no elaborate plans for the future lest our carefully constructed world be torn away from us. Of course that is bullshit. We are humans. We laugh, love, live and die with each other. Maybe it is our nature to suffer. Maybe the answer can be found in the eight-fold path. What do I know? But I’ll probably be posting about this topic a lot more in the near future since it is important to me lately.