Saturday, July 5, 2014

Summer Romance

Wow! I’ve been emailing with a group of friends from high school. Last year we had our 50th high school reunion and now we are digging into our past. Collectively we are jogging memories and remembering stuff we haven’t thought of for 50 or 60 years. The line from Edward Weston’s daybooks, “How Young I Was” is taking on a special meaning with these conversations.

Our strongly Christian classmate, “G,” criticized one of our celebrity classmates who recently married a woman that he had a brief summer romance with many years ago. G felt that he shouldn’t have publicized that he had this relationship without being married. He felt that the young might be corrupted.

G’s criticism has occupied my mind for a few days now. I am reminded of my dad’s comment many years ago that there is no morality, only the law. At the time I was ready to strangle him. Now, many years later, I sometimes agree with him. One problem with morality is that it varies from person to person, and from country to country. Is it ok to kill in self-defense? To protect a country? Can you steal if your family is starving? And on and on. 

G's comment has occupied my mind for a couple of days. I thought of the ancient Jewish concept that if you “shack up” (as my mother called it) then you are now married. And I thought of the Buddhist precept that you should not misuse sexuality. My friend’s behavior seemed ok under all these ethical systems. As under my dad’s (no law was being broken), Judaism’s (it wasn’t adultery and it wasn’t a cousin), and Buddhism’s (what was being misused?).

Then I thought about the second part of G’s complaint, that the tale of his romance would corrupt the youth. I’m not a psychologist but I think a kid hearing about a summer romance is a lot healthier than seeing much of the violence and one night stands that permeate the media. The press wrote about the interlude as a fairy tale, updated because Facebook was the means they reconnected.

As the dialogue continues with my classmates, we are bringing to light how bad we were as kids. The things we did might not be the kind of things that we’d tell reporters about. How is it, with the best of parents and schools,
that we weren’t always on the straight and narrow?

I have learned that the frontal lobe of our brain is where our judgements occur…and unfortunately it is the part that isn’t fully developed until we are in our late 20s. Maybe we can use that as our excuse for our inexcusable behavior.

I’ve been intrigued by the need for all the Jewish and Buddhist laws. My wife asked, “why can’t we just do the right thing?” I’m working on the answer. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Put Down My Pack

The soul is a bad word in Zen. I was embarrassed to admit tonight after meditation that we were going to deal with the soul. In the rest of the world a soul is something you cherish. In The Devil and Daniel Webster, Daniel Webster attempts to get back a man’s soul from the devil. It was bartered for a good crop.

It isn't that Buddhists don't like the soul. They don't believe it exists. The praise JustThis really gets to the heart of the matter. There isn't anything to us but our skin and bones. And there is no part that is permanent.

But there are, for me, some inconsistencies in this view. For one, there is our Buddha nature, which some associate with our original being—who we were before we started piling up delusions. And for another, there is the question that is rarely answered about the Buddhist concept of rebirth. If it isn't our skin and bones that are reborn, then what is it that comes around around again? Buddhists believe that everything that we do and everything that we have done in past lives carves a statute of who or what we will become. How does this get passed on? If it is not a physical structure, is it not something very close to a soul?

William Stafford tells us that “to regain your soul” we should put down our pack and inhale glorious nature (my words). He says that “suddenly, anything could happen to you. Your soul pulls toward the canyon and then shines be you again.”

Today I was working out with my trainer, Finn. Letting go is really tough for me. I restrict my movements with my brain. I create sore muscles by protecting them as best I can. Putting down one’s pack—that which (we believe) may sustain us in the future—may allow us to find the delight of this present moment. And in doing so, we may find our soul, or our original nature, as the Buddhists like to call it.

Putting down my pack is my challenge.


How to Regain Your Soul
by William Stafford

Come down Canyon Creek trail on a summer afternoon
that one place where the valley floor opens out. You will see
the white butterflies. Because of the way shadows
come off those vertical rocks in the west, there are
shafts of sunlight hitting the river and a deep
long purple gorge straight ahead. Put down your pack.

Above, air sighs the pines. It was this way
when Rome was clanging, when Troy was being built,
when campfires lighted caves. The white butterflies dance
by the thousands in the still sunshine. Suddenly, anything
could happen to you. Your soul pulls toward the canyon
and then shines back through the white wings to be you

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Burro Rink

When I was a kid in Oregon, I used to run a burro rink. Kids would come, usually with their parents, and they'd give me 25¢ to put them on a burro and let the burro trod around in a circle eight times. The littlest kids I'd strap on, and sometimes either I or a parent would walk around with the kid, especially if they started to cry. The best part of the job is that girls would come and talk with me. In those days this was a poor little town and there weren't any planned activities for kids. I earned $2 a day and managed to save most of it. It was a great job until the state of Oregon intervened and enforced rules about how old we'd have to be to work and what we should be paid.

We were told that burros were a mix of a donkey and a mule, or something like that. I see from Wikipedia that a burro is just a small donkey. In those days, it was difficult to validate all the things we were told. There was a small library in the town, and perhaps they had some old donated encyclopedia. But I never though of looking up all the stuff people would tell me to check out what they said.

For years I believed that water goes down a drain in one direction, and south of the equater it goes down in the opposite direction. I taught this to my students for over thirty years when they were rocking trays in the darkroom. “Notice how the water swirls in the tray. If you were south of the equader it would....” Lo and behold someone recently told me that was a stupid wife's tale. Like the origin of burros, the truth is not what one cowboy tells you.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dana, and Gratitude for Bill Gates

One of many examples of unintentional giving

“As in Judaism, the dynamics of sacrifice is interiorized and spiritualized in Buddhism, which goes all the way in emptying sacrifice of its physical substance. Thus the perfection of giving, when grounded in the perfection of wisdom, is marked by the disappearance of giver, gift, and receiver. The objectification of any of the three taints the pure freedom of emptiness.”

When I hear the idea of “not separate” I think of the giver, gift, and receiver as being indistinguishable from each other. The giving that Bhante (our Burmese monk who teaches us the words of the Buddha) was referencing in his discussion of giving (dana) was lay giving, as opposed to enlightened giving (as he noted).

Here's an article on the Charitable-Giving Divide
“In 2001, Independent Sector, a nonprofit organization focused on charitable giving, found that households earning less than $25,000 a year gave away an average of 4.2 percent of their incomes; those with earnings of more than $75,000 gave away 2.7 percent.”

I think the fallacy here is that one is talking about percentages rather than looking at both percentage and amount. I assume that much of the giving of those who make less than $25000 is to their churches. 4.2% is $1050 or $20 a week. For many churchgoers, this is the cost for being in a religious community. Many would be embarrassed not to put money in the bowl as it is being passed. Those making $75000 give $2025, almost double. Who is the more generous? Who worked harder or more hours to earn their money? Who invested four to six years of their time and money to get a higher education to earn more? Some look at the person who earns $1,000,000 and asks why they only end up paying 20% of their income in taxes ($200,000), where someone making $100,000 might be paying 35% ($35,000). Is it fair to say that the millionaire isn't paying enough, even if it is 5.7 times what the one who earns less pays in taxes?

The biggest issue I have with the discussions of "dana" is that they seem to gloss over the fact that most of our material world and infrastructure wasn't generated from "an open heart" yet gives us innumerable pleasure and freedom. Artists, for example, create beauty because they have the urges and abilities to do so. Their motivation might not be to enhance our lives, yet our lives are enhanced by their actions. Picasso may never have given a penny to charity, yet our lives are enhanced immeasurably by his actions. Grande Communications, in an effort to make more money and compete with Google, now provides 1 gigabit Internet service. A great gift, in my book, though perhaps not done from any altruistic intention. Are their efforts deserving of gratitude?

I forever return to Milton Friedman as he describes the lesson of the pencil. Numerous people with numerous skills all work together to creates a pencil, making it possible for me to make a drawing. None might have had the slightest ambition to “give” yet their gift enables many to have richer lives (monetarily and emotionally). Are they bodhisattvas? Perhaps.

I've created my own parable about giving. Imagine that Schindler had only one ambition in hiring Jews for his manufacturing company, and that was to earn greater profits. He discovered that he could hire Jews for less money, and that they worked hard. On the other hand, Schindler (in my parable) had a brother who was a good Samaritan. He wanted to save as many Jews from the Nazis as possible. In my parable, Schindler was very good at making money, and in his “greed” to turn a profit, he saved hundreds of Jews from the death camps. On the other hand, Schindler's brother was klutz. For every Jew he saves, ten more are shipped off to the concentration camps. I now ask, who is the better person? Many say that it is Schindler's brother. And then I ask, if you were on a space ship taking you to one of two planets where you'd live your life out, and one planet was full of Schindlers, and the second was full of Schindler's brothers, which planet would you choose? Here I usually get the answer of Schindler.

Yes, Bill Gates gives a lot of his money away. But that is a minor part of his humanitarian gestures. His greatest gifts are his contributions to enable us to learn and communicate easily and efficiently. He deserves our gratitude for that.