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. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Is Life Predictable?

There is a sign in the zendo: everything changes, everything is connected, and pay attention. For me, it requires us to be vigilant at all times. We don't know what is going to come our way. Simple jobs can become complicated. Just when we think we have all the I’s dotted and the t’s crossed, we are thrown for a loop.

I took a survey and asked my kids if life was predictable and they said yes. I asked some zen practitioners and they said no...after laughing. Do we live in the same world? Buddha said that when you throw a stick it could land on either end. As cut and dry are the laws of karma, Buddha also said that things just happen.

My first zen teacher said there was no such thing as cause and effect. There are only conditions. If the forest is dry and if it is warm, a condition exists for a fire. A condition also exists for a picnic. To say that the fire was caused by the condition suggests that each time such a condition exists you'll have a fire. We know that isn't the case. The second problem with cause and effect is that it doesn't acknowledge that everything is connected. That doesn't mean that everything is connected to something, but rather it suggests that everything is connected to everything else, as illustrated by Indra's net. Conditions are infinitely complex. Cause and effect suggest that things exist that aren't connected.

My daughter is teaching a class this summer that will end four days before her due date. When she told her doctor today, her plan was met with laughter. How did my daughter know with such certainty how her pregnancy would progress?

We know that erratic and unpredictable parents produce problems for their kids. These kids never learn to trust. Maybe in the end they are more prepared for real life. Maybe our desire to make them feel secure taught them the wrong lesson. The kids who stayed in London during the Blitz were better adjusted that those who were sent off to the country for safety. Was it that they were with their parents, or was it that they saw the other side of life?

I felt a pang of guilt when my kids said that life was predictable. Where did I go wrong? Did I hide the truth from them? Did I know the truth? (To be honest, I had no idea.)

I remember what my wise philosophy professor told me in college. Imagine you are a beach ball floating in the ocean. You can't determine where the ball will go, but you can tap it this way or that and change it direction just a little. Did I believe him? No, as an ambitious 18 year-old, I thought I could do anything if I tried hard enough.

Do I owe my kids an apology? Or do I just wait by the sidelines until they figure it out on their own? 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Disarming the Zendo Bomb

Tonight I thought I had dokusan with Kosho, my zen teacher. Thought, that is, because we do it every couple of weeks and I’m never sure if we did it last week, or two weeks ago. Anyway, it is a private meeting where we are supposed to discuss my zen practice, but usually we talk about something else. The relationship of one’s life and one’s zen practice is inextricable linked. The difficulty with talking about sitting is that what goes on when one sits is, as the koan says, “most intimate.”

For this reason, on the day of dokusan, I work hard to think of some non-practice issue about which to talk. Nothing came up so I succumbed to talk about my meditation...especially focusing on why should I do it anyway? It seems that I ask him this question annually and then rapidly forget what he says.

The way dokusan works is that after about ten minutes of meditation, Scott, the ino (head of the zendo), comes over to me and tells me that it is time. I then get up, bow to the cushion and to the others in the room, and then leave the zendo to go to the Kosho’s house across the street. I like to be done with dokusan in time to come back to ring the bells during service. Sometimes Kosho forgets to tell me it is time to end, so today I decided to set my alarm.

I was sitting away and the ten-minute point came and went, and Scott didn't come and get me.
Then I realized that my phone alarm was going to go off in a few minutes and disturb everyone meditating. My phone was in my jean pocket.  I'd have to get it out and disarm it. I was sitting next to another priest, Mako, so I knew I would not go undetected. I would initiate, or so I thought, a thought in her head, “What in the world is he doing? Did he forget to silence his phone? He should know better by now.”

In any case, I was able to disarm the Zendo bomb and place it quietly on the zabaton on which I was sitting.

As the time ticked away, I started to wonder if Kosho knew that I was going to ask him about meditation. Did he decide that it would be better if I just sit rather than talk? Trying to talk about meditation might be the last thing I needed to do. Meditation is a bodily activity that isn't well understood by the mind. Perhaps if we could conceptualize it, we wouldn't have to sit.

When meditation was over we walk to the entrance of the zendo and give Kosho a gassho bow. I was the last one since I had to put out the candles. By that time, I was so grateful to Kosho that my dokusan was simply a time to sit. I smiled at him and he smiled back. My answer about why should I sit came this year from sitting, not from talking.

Friday, May 9, 2014

I Turned Out to Be Me

I could have been anything. I knew I wouldn't be tall, but I thought I could be a pro basketball player because the Globetrotters had players like Too Tall (5'2")And during the baseball season I thought I could turn pro and become as good as any of my baseball heroes like Minnie MoƱoso. I would just need to learn to hit the ball and a few other minor things. In fact, I could steal bases with vengeance. Which was useful since I often walked because I was so short that pitchers couldn't find my strike zone.

And then there was art. I had delusions of grandeur there too. No goal was too high—even the Sistine Chapel. Somehow I didn't have too many goals for my kids. My son had enough of his own (are kids having goals a guy thing?), while my daughter didn't seem to share so many of our ambitions. (Nevertheless, both kids have accomplished a lot.)

In our Zen Writing class, we read a poem about the poet’s hurt shoulder and how it impacted her rowing. I am reminded of all the things I can't do for one reason or another. Coming to terms with one limitations seem to be synomonous with getting old, or maybe I should say, getting older.  Of course, one of the biggies is that I'm beginning to realize that I can't live forever. But beyond that, there are many things I can't or won't do because I either can't or I realize the consequences.

I used to believe I could fix anything in a house. My father-in-law could do that and he'd instruct me step-by-step. And then he'd grunt when I'd do something wrong. Now that he's not in Austin, I've hired some people to do stuff and discovered that their skill set is way beyond mine.

I sometime think I know a little about computers, but when I think of the knowledge ofvarious friendly geeks whom I know, I don't stand chance in their world. But I putter along and manage to keep things working.

I turned out to be me, I suppose. Yes, I turned out to be me. It was probably my last resort. It was what I'd become if nothing else worked out.

Some people have extraordinary talents. They can do anything. Fortunately or unfortunately, I can just be me. I wish I would have known that many years ago. Then I might not have spent so much energy trying to be someone else.