Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Other Holocaust

Reading Bearing Witness: A Zen Master's Lessons in Making Peace by Bernie Glassman Roshi and Eve Marko was an eye-opening introduction to Socially Engaged Buddhism, in particular, the Zen Peacemakers' annual (currently 19th) retreat to the old site of the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Zen Peacemakers' Three Tenets are:

Not-Knowing, by giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe
Bearing Witness to the joy and suffering of the world
Taking Action that arises from Not-Knowing and Bearing Witness

Glassman expands on the third tenet:

When we bear witness, when we become the situation — homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death — the right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness. Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.

Loving action is right action. It’s as simple as giving a hand to someone who stumbles or picking up a child who has fallen on the floor. We take such direct, natural actions every day of our lives without considering them special. And they’re not special. Each is simply the best possible response to that situation in that moment.

With the greatest possible respect and deference to the victims of the Nazi holocaust, their families and loved ones, my heart will burst if I don’t bear witness to another holocaust that is taking place under our noses. In the spirit of Not Knowing, I won’t say another word about it this year except to share these ten pictures.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

An English Teacher's Gift to a Stranger in a Strange Land

I wrote elsewhere that part of me (my thinking mind) feels like it's still seventeen. 

Comparing my profile picture to the high school yearbook photo above will confirm that the rest of me definitely is not.

A couple of years before the photo was taken, a very dear English teacher (Mr. W. L. Hardie) made a lasting impression on me. His presentation of Emerson's essay Self-Reliance was a gift that 50 years later, I still remember fondly.

The tenet is simple: don't be afraid to be yourself. Since we are each unique, it also means have the courage to be different.

To an often painfully shy introvert, those words were music. I took the advice to heart - perhaps, I hasten to admit, a tad to the extreme. If you look closely, you may detect some subtle differences from my classmates below (hint: check the hair length, sideburns, glasses, shirt and tie colour)...

Many years later, noticing my tendency to be timid and overly self-effacing, the abbot of our zen centre offered some kindly advice that can be reduced to one word. Manifest!!

Or, in the language of the Heart Sutra, less emptiness, more form.

As we act out our lives and our practice ripens, no doubt maintaining a skilful balance between nonduality and differentiation becomes more natural and effortless. However, a concept that came of age, like me, in the hippie era was that ego is to be avoided and even, to be ashamed of. Consequently, a well-aimed self-administered kick in the pants is occasionally needed to get me 'out there'.

And what a strange world 'out there' can be.

The flip side of being aware of our individuality is noticing the wonderful, the weird and the heartbreaking. Interwoven with wordless beauty and breathtaking kindness are idiotic thoughtlessness, meaningless self-absorption and unspeakable cruelty, all of which, through encouragement, great sorrow, some despair, and yes, anger, kindle our compassion, fuel our resolve and launch us into action.

I admit that when the 'stranger in a strange land' feeling comes upon me, I have a tendency to disassociate myself from the perceived evils of the world, to set myself above them and to cling to an idealistic construct of myself. Before too long, hopefully, I also realize that these are warning signs that I'm allowing unification anxiety to creep into my life and that it's time to dive back into practice.

We can be strangers in a strange land, as long as we keep our hearts wide open and remember that everyone else is a stranger in this strange land too.

May we make the other strangers feel at home.

May we love the ones we're with.

Well, the last bit is true....

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Musing over the Rainbow

As the loyal companion of two rescued springer spaniels (see The Rescue of Dallas and Austin), I joined the English Springer Spaniel Lovers Facebook group.

Springers are 99% heart.  Dallas is about as smart as a bag of hammers, but I've never known a dog with more heart.

As you might expect, members of the group tend to post from the heart too. Most of the stories are heartwarming accounts of devotion and loyalty and just plain cuteness.

But as you might also expect, there are heartbreaking stories of the brown and white faithful companions arriving at the end of their all too short lives. This, I learned, is called going to the Rainbow Bridge.

Lately, several Pride parades got me thinking about the rainbow symbol.

The oldest is probably as the symbol of hope for the future.

Noah said it was God's way of saying that He was done with His ethnic cleansing rampage.

Personally, I wouldn't take much comfort in that, coming from a being who had just massacred 99.99% of the women and men on earth and their children. Not to mention what must be the worst example of collateral damage ever - especially coming from an omniscient omnipotent being - killing all but two members of every innocent animal species on the planet.

Oops - ranting. Perhaps another time...

The rainbow symbol that gives me the most hope is as the celebration of diversity.

You know how some people just can't seem to tell you about someone else without being compelled to also mention the person's race, religion, sexual orientation and body morphology?  I remember getting particularly fed up with racial stereotyping one day and saying, "Won't it be nice when all the races have completely interbred and we all look the same?"

After a little reflection, however, I realized that what would be much nicer will be to live in a world where our hearts have opened and prejudice no longer abides, where, with innocent, affectionate curiosity, we can approach strangers and ask them about their racial origins and no offence will be intended and none will be taken.

Here's Eva Cassidy. Sadly, cancer took her to the Rainbow Bridge early, but the songs she left behind have gladdened many hearts.

Photo credit: Captain76 by CreativeCommons.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Down Judgment Road

I'm becoming a grumpy old man.

At least, the warning signs are there. A new addition to my watch list of troubling tendencies – joining old friends procrastination, avoidance, timidity, gluttony (a.k.a. Sweet Tooth) and sloth.

Because I propounded the old adage, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,” I had my last cigarette and drink 26 and 16 years ago, respectively.

However, being judgmental is one of those awkward necessities – along with procrastination, avoidance, timidity, gluttony and sloth - that you can’t quite drop cold turkey if you tend to overindulge.

I mean, some things just have to be put off or avoided, caution is often called for, and without eating or sleeping, we wither and die. And judging is a necessary part of rational thought.

So it comes down to practice: our efforts to give energy and direction to our everyday lives to do the ‘right’ thing – as in the right speech, right livelihood, right concentration, etc. of the eightfold path, making our way through the currents of cause and effect in the ocean of form and emptiness, otherwise known as our ordinary lives.

Zen master Yunmen was once asked, “What is the teaching of the Buddha’s entire lifetime?” Yunmen answered, “An appropriate response.”

Eshin Godfrey likened our moment to moment efforts to stay on course to sailing a small boat. Responding to the movements of the wind and tides and waves and currents, adjusting our weight, the pressure on the tiller and the tension in the sails.

Of the possible responses to the specific annoyance of intrusive unhelpful judgmental thoughts, making sure my mouth remains shut is a big one. Refraining from scowling is also big, as is refraining from rolling my eyes (unless it's at my ridiculous penchant for judging...).

Then there is the standard repertoire for dealing with unbidden thoughts in general - acknowledging them, evaluating their immediate usefulness (yes, judging them!), and for the most part, letting them go their merry way without following them.

But many (of my) judgmental thoughts tend to be unkind, and these call for more extreme measures, namely a concentrated blast of kind thoughts at the judgee.

Here's Pema:

The next time you go out in the world, you might try this practice: directing your attention to people—in their cars, on the sidewalk, talking on their cell phones—just wish for them all to be happy and well. Without knowing anything about them, they can become very real, by regarding each of them personally and rejoicing in the comforts and pleasures that come their way. Each of us has this soft spot: a capacity for love and tenderness. But if we don’t encourage it, we can get pretty stubborn about remaining sour.

Here are some related posts:

And here's Sarah:

Friday, May 30, 2014

Profoundly Ordinary (and other Zen Oxymorons)

Insight into the great matter, sometimes reverently called the The Great Matter of Birth and Death, has likely been pursued for millennia, ever since humans became self-aware.

Enlightenment, satori, kensho, seeing into one's own nature, self-realization, illumination, awakening, seeing one's original face, epiphany, reaching God-consciousness, or, as Robert Aitken Roshi put it, noticing something important.

It can be a gradual shift in perception spanning decades or a sudden realization as quick as the opening of an eye. It can follow years of diligent meditation / zazen / mindfulness, or it can happen for no apparent reason at all.

Although much sought after, it is not infrequently, I suspect, the elephant in the room. After all, “Whoever knows does not speak; whoever speaks does not know.”

Which means whoever spoke those words (Lao Tsu) obviously didn’t know (?)

Which means the statement might be false. Which means … hmmm … entering a place where words fall apart.

On March 15, 1958 In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, Thomas Merton was suddenly overwhelmed with a realization “like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.”

Over at Monkey Mind in his post A Bit of What Kensho is and A Bit More of What it Isn’t, James Ford Roshi wrote, “…what we get is a discovery of our ordinariness. And, like for Father Merton, finding our deepest connection.”

Bodhidharma’s answer in the first koan of the Blue Cliff Record  to the emperor’s question, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” was, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”

The oxymoron ‘profound ordinariness’ might have been used by St. Augustine. (I’m flitting about here, fearful that this piece may descend into rational analysis in a place where rational analysis has no business being.)

His particular usage of oxymoron, found in the prayer to God, is as follows: "(You are) deeply hidden yet most intimately present, ... immutable and yet changing all things, ... always active, always in repose, ... you love without burning, ... you are wrathful and remain tranquil. You will change without any change in your design” (Conf., 1,4,4) …

Augustine uses the oxymoron for glorifying God. The phrase "(You) deeply hidden yet most intimately present" contains contradictory and incompatible words. Yet it is with these contradictory words that he was able to express God. God is absolutely ineffable. Nevertheless, "if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable." (Doct.Christ., 1,6,6)

Speaking about shift in perception, here is an autostereogram (remember them?) The slightest change in view brings alive a vivid three-dimensional image from a bunch of coloured dots.


Hint: enlarge the image and experiment gazing at it slightly cross-eyed.

[Spoiler alert: It’s the image of a shark, cut into, not standing out from, the flat surface.]

Perhaps here might be a good place to mention, for those interested but who haven’t read it yet, The Book of Mu – Essential Writings on Zen’s Most Important Koan by James Ford Roshi and Melissa Myozen Blacker – a collection of over 40 wonderful essays, each pointing at the moon.

And finally, another grateful nod to James for introducing me to Peter Mayer’s Holy Now.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Children Shall Lead

“It's not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world.
It's our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”
A big part of my job is persuading people: judges to grant what I’m asking for, opposing lawyers to be reasonable, clients to get real. It spills over into daily life as I bend the ears of friends, family, colleagues and strangers, trying to sell my particular brand of The Right Way to eat, live and think.

All for a good cause, of course, to end the suffering of all beings, everywhere. Probably a smiley face should go here.

Human evolution. Leaving behind cannibalism, slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, war, the death penalty, exploiting animals. We can give it a push, or at least, get out of the way. 

It dawned on me that I've spent quite a lot of energy trying to change opinions that were formed back when I used a slide rule. Pushing molasses uphill comes to mind.

I can relate to the inertia, as I suffer from the same opposition to change - clinging vainly to a version of the English language that's crumbling before my eyes, and I feel as helpless as my forebears who watched in dismay as “you” relentlessly replaced “thou” and “thee”.

It further dawned on me that evolution won’t come by changing the tightly held views of old people, but by encouraging the amazing hearts and minds of those who have never seen a slide rule, an eight track tape or a brick phone.

I went looking for statistics about the views of different age groups and found these:

Statistcbrain (2013): 

Age demographics of the the 8.3 million vegetarians/vegans in the USA
42.0% 18-29
40.7% 35-54
17.4% 55+

Americans opposing the death penalty
43% 18-29
38% 30-49
33% 50+

Gallup (2012):

Americans who believe same sex marriage should be valid
73% 18-29
49% 30-49
51% 50-64
39% 65+

Taking the cynical view, it could be argued the statistics mean our liberal ideas become more conservative with age, but I don't buy that.

If we encourage our children and if we seek out and nurture the child in us, I believe the human race will evolve beyond our wildest imaginings.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Field of Swans and Ducks and Geese

A field of swans and ducks and geese,
A twilight picnic meeting,
Together wade and feed in peace,
No thought of time as fleeting

How precious, life, how hard to know,
Yet time I’m prone to squander,
My home is here and now, although
My mind is prone to wander

Let’s open up our guarded heart,
No matter if it’s breaking
And all we cherish falls apart,
We’re from a dream awaking

The lonely wave, it laughed aloud
Then wept with such emotion,
Cried, "Oh my God, I see it now -
I've always been the ocean!"

Compassion is a burning flame
That sears away our blindness,
Though we may never be the same,
What matters else but kindness?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Sinclair Effect

I think how we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other.
- Barack Obama

In fact, how we treat our animals affects how we treat each other.

At the turn of the 20th century, Upton Sinclair exposed the devastating work conditions and living environments of those who toiled in Chicago’s stockyard slaughterhouses. In The Jungle he made a connection between the numerous after-work fights instigated by slaughterhouse workers and the killing and dismembering of animals all day at work.

This is from the introduction to Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates – An Empirical Analysis of the Spillover From “The Jungle” Into the Surrounding Community by Amy J. Fitzgerald from the University of Windsor and Linda Kalof and Thomas Dietz from Michigan State University (Organization & Environment, 2009 v. 20).

Their study concludes,

The findings indicate that slaughterhouse employment increases total arrest rates, arrests for violent crimes, arrests for rape, and arrests for other sex offenses in comparison with other industries. This suggests the existence of a Sinclair effect unique to the violent workplace of the slaughterhouse, a factor that has not previously been examined in the sociology of violence.

Albert Einstein had a suggestion:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.


If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.

Others have written in a similar vein.

We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.
- Immanuel Kant

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
- Gandhi

Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.
- Albert Schweitzer

As long as people will shed the blood of innocent creatures there can be no peace, no liberty, no harmony between people. Slaughter and justice cannot dwell together.
- Isaac Bashevis Singer

But slaughter and beauty do dwell together, among us.

I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
- William Penn

Friday, February 7, 2014

Contagion - or, When You're Smiling

I have to admit that when I worked for a couple of years as a microbiologist not too long ago (Car 16 - a Reminiscence), I thought it was really cool to be in a place that had creepy biohazard symbols posted on the doors and refrigerators. We worked with some fairly nasty critters living in test tubes and petri dishes that, if they made it from the lab into the coffee room, could turn the latter into Ground Zero of our very own epidemic.

On the subject of spreading, I was pleasantly surprised to read these words and then learn who wrote them:

Goodness always tends to spread. Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others. As it expands, goodness takes root and develops. If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good.
This is always a slow process and we can be overly fearful. But if we allow doubts and fears to dampen our courage, instead of being creative we will remain comfortable and make no progress whatsoever. In this case we will not take an active part in historical processes, but become mere onlookers as the Church [or the world, or society, or the individual] gradually stagnates.
                 - Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium Nov. 24, 2013)

I think this applies to each of our own efforts to influence the spread of compassion, whether in general, or in specific undertakings like promoting gender equality and animal liberation, or working to eliminate the death penalty and war.

We sometimes wonder, in acts of kindness, does size matter? Just sharing a smile, or, like Mother Teresa, living a tireless life deeply dedicated to relieving suffering. I think if we act with our whole heart when an opportunity to be kind presents itself, perhaps the question doesn't matter. (By the way, Mother Teresa said, “I know God won't give me anything I can't handle. I just wish he didn't trust me so much.”)

Little things can add up to a lot. Tipping points are reached when small things reach a critical mass. Videos of random acts of kindness can go viral.

A life full of kindness of any kind is a full life.

A little tubbier then, with elbow in the Listeria monocytogenes

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Doorstep Cross-Examination

I've been told by a certain household member that having a discussion with me is like being cross-examined on the witness stand. While I don't entirely agree, I have been known to take a rather direct approach to piercing bafflegab.

One of the most baffling varieties is literal adherence to the words of a religious text, whether it's the Bible or the Buddhist canon.

Although I usually just bite my tongue, nod and smile pleasantly (assuming I've been trapped and didn't have a chance to escape first), occasionally a demon possesses me to jump in with both feet.

This was one of those times.

Two or three members of a religious group showed up at my door and wondered if they could invite themselves inside to tell me something important. I had a bit of time to spare, but not that much, so I engaged them on the doorstep. I'm afraid what followed was essentially a cross-examination.

Q:    You folks believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, don't you?
A:    Yes.
Q:    Every word in the Bible is true, right?
A:    Yes.
Q:    So in the beginning, Adam and Eve were the only people on the earth, weren't they?
A:    Yes.
Q:    Then they had two sons, Cain and Abel, right?
A:    That's right.
Q:    Then Cain slew Abel?
A:    Yes.
Q:    Then, the Bible says, Cain took a wife, correct?
A:    Yes.
Q:    Sooo... Where did his wife come from?
A:    Adam and Eve had more children.
Q:    Oh. You mean Cain married his sister?
A:    Yes.
Q:    But I thought the Bible says incest is a sin?
A:    Well, God made an exception in Adam and Eve's time.  It became a sin later.
Q:    I see.

Soundly defeated, I nodded, smiled sweetly and wished them a nice day.

[Note to self: Remember law school? Courtroom 101? Never ask a question you don't know the answer to?]

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