Sunday, September 15, 2019

Pencil

So my big dilemma today is whether to write something. I was going to write something every day, and make a picture, but yesterday I wrote two pieces since I was in an all-day writing intensive. So I could take a day off.

We read a poem about a pencil. About all the poems that are in a pencil. I remember when we had John Grimes (https://id.iit.edu/people/john-grimes/), an early computer graphics champion, come to talk at our college in St. Louis. He held up a pencil and said, “We’ll never have anything more sensitive than a pencil.”

I’m not sure if he’s right, but it is a pretty amazing instrument. NASA supposedly spent a million dollars to develop a ballpoint pen that would write in space but finally settled on a pencil that worked as well.

What interests me more is that we have stuff inside us that needs to come out. If we don’t let it out, then it dissipates… vaporizes. That’s why I’m writing today.

P.S. This is drawn with a ballpoint pen.


Friday, September 13, 2019

The Case of the Leaking Pen

Karma. I like to define it as the effect of our volitional actions.

Volitional suggests “on purpose.” But much of what we do in inadvertent. We didn’t pay attention. I consider inadvertent actions to be volitional as they were mainly preventable if we had paid attention.

Yesterday I left Gary’s apartment with his pen in my pocket. He didn’t give it to me. I guess I just put it in my pocket. It isn’t the first time. Pens often end up in my pocket, as if, in a previous life, I was a bonafide pen robber.

Today the pen started leaking, staining my fingers like a scarlet letter. All would know of my indiscretion.

Every morning we recite the repentance verse that says,
“All my ancient twisted karma.
from beginningless greed hate and delusion,
born through body speech and mind
I now fully avow.”
It will have a little more meaning tomorrow as I look at my stained hands.


Do I get Gary a new pen? Did I cause the leaking? Was the leaking what we call a dharma gate, teaching me to pay attention, and, of course, to keep my hands in my pockets?
“‘Once when the Buddha was at Jetavana Park, an intoxicated Brahman wandered into the compound where Buddha was staying and asked to become a monk. Buddha requested that some of his monks shave the Brahman’s head and clothe him in a kesa (or the Buddhist monk’s robe). Later, after the effects of the liquor had worn off, the Brahman was astonished and frightened upon seeing that his bodily form had changed into that of a Buddhist monk, whereupon he ran away. The monks respectfully asked the Buddha why he had allowed the drunken Brahman to become a monk only to have him run back home. Buddha answered, ‘For eons beyond measure, this Brahman did not have the heart to leave home life behind, but now, while under the influence, he gave rise to a bit of courage. Due to this, he will, later on, leave home life behind.’” (Eihei Dogen, Shukke)
On somewhat another subject, is the question of whether we should abandon Facebook because they helped the Russians put Trump in the White House? Do you cancel an exhibit of Chuck Close’s paintings because he didn’t treat his models nicely? Is this a matter of winning the battle and losing the war. I’m a little scared of our expectation that Facebook approves right speech and censures wrong speech. We might applause when they suppress ideas that we want suppressed, but what about when they start promoting ideas that we don’t think are right. Will they always be on our side?


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Dialogue with a Squirrel

The Art Institute of Chicago started as a storehouse for plaster casts to support the students‘ need to draw Greek and Roman statues. Eventually, it became a museum of art. I’ve been thinking about training and my long rejection of the idea. And then I met up with a verse on the training of an elephant in ancient India, and misread the verse, thinking they had the same problem with training that I did.

Yesterday I had a little thing going with a squirrel. He was trying to stay cool by laying his belly on a branch of a tree in the shade. I watched him, and he watched me, and eventually, he went back to work, scavenging pecans from our not too fruitful pecan tree, and I going in the house to get more garbage for trash collection day tomorrow.


Squirrels seem to have been well designed. Their natural instincts seem to work. Animals seem to share that quality of being authentic and functional. They don’t need the training to accomplish their higher needs unless they become domesticated.

Elephants do well without us. But when we want to ride them we have to tame them. I’m not sure that they become happier and more fulfilled. I’ll have to ask my elephant friends.

It seems that humans need a lot more work. Our natural instincts get us in all kinds of trouble,  We pass the fridge and eat more than we need for energy. We get infatuated and our life goes astray. We sit on a meditation cushion and drift off into Lala land. Why? Why can’t we just follow our instincts?

We train and train. All of us are doing one ironman or ironwoman after another. I had looked forward to retirement so I could stop trying so hard. I thought I could just be me, and follow every whim. Little did I know I’d have to face one boot camp after another.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Hard or Soft

For about 10 years we have been holding weekly zen writing sessions at the Austin Zen Center. We have it as a MeetUp group, with 850+ members, and also advertised on the Austin Zen Center web pages. We have each time a combination of people who have been coming for years, and newcomers. Last night I started by talking about the difference between consciousness and mindfulness in relation to photography. Ernest Haas (http://ernst-haas.com/), who came to St. Louis Community College to talk eons ago, spoke about the difference between looking and seeing. When looking, he said, you are merely orienting yourself. I don’t remember what he said about seeing, but he did suggest that is what the photographer tries to do. It seems much like mindfulness.

“With a bit of mindful observation, we can in fact easily notice how spacious and allowing the mind can be when we are open to differences and variety, and how narrow and cramped the mind can become when we are self-righteous and judgmental. Becoming aware of this difference can serve as a good signpost for noticing when the mind shifts from open-mindedness to closing down.” —Analayo. Satipatthana Meditation. Windhorse Publications. Kindle Edition.

In this wonderful book on one of the two basic sutras by Buddha that explain meditation, Analayo talks about the feminine quality of sati or mindfulness. I suspect that it is the difference between sprinting and long-distance running. I know nothing about either, but I suspect that when sprinting you are trying hard, and when long-distance running you are trying soft. Some of you runners might want to correct me.

Perhaps it is more like someone driving on a long trip and a race car driver racing in the Indianapolis 500.

“Once the crops have been harvested, however, the cowherd can relax and just observe the cows from a distance. All he has to do is to be aware that “there are the cows.” For this distant watching, the simile uses the term sati (Anālayo 2003: 53 and 2014a: 87). I picture the cowherd sitting relaxed at the root of a tree and watching the cows grazing in various places. All he has to do is just be aware of them from an uninvolved distance.”


Analayo is associating the cowherd with the meditator. Part of the reason for the “soft” approach is that the “hard” approach is unsustainable, even for a minute (try to stare intently at something for a minute).

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Dog’s Best Friend

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about someone who changed my life. But my first thought was that it was really me who made the difference. People did various heroic acts to save me from my own doings, but in the end, it was I that changed my life. They did just what they did to me to others with little effect so it was our relationship that was the cause of something happening to me. They tried to lite a candle, but most of the time the wind blew out their match. Somehow their match lit my candle. And usually, it took a fair amount of persistence on both of our parts. Surprisingly, some of these generous folks have now gone on in their lives. I have a nagging feeling with some of them that somehow I disappointed them.

I had a geometry teacher, Mr. Moulton, who said that the best mathematician was the laziest one. He challenged us with proving theorems. It was probably some of the most fun I’ve had in my life. Much of school didn’t make sense. I didn’t have any affinity with learning facts, but I loved math. Something seemed so elegant and clear about math.

Then there was my grandpa. We worked together in the summer. He would let me do as much as I could. I think of him more like my father during those years. He accepted me in a way that my parents did not. My parents always wanted me to do better. My grandpa always admired how I could figure things out.

My parents and my sisters were very verbal. I couldn’t keep up with them. Then there was my art teacher who told my parents that I had made a beautiful photo. He encouraged me for years. He taught me about being creative. He was a gift of the gods for me.

In college, I had some wonderful teachers who taught me so much. The saw in me something that I did not see. All of a sudden I had a voice, and they encouraged me to use it.

My sister Gail was always a special soul in my life. She saw me in a very loving way. Somehow I could say anything to her and it was ok.

My wife of 50 years has been such a special friend. We have grown up together and like one another more and more as the years pass. I still miss her when she’s been gone all day and I am so glad when she returns home.

And then there is a dog who actually found me and became my friend for many years. He taught me quite a bit about friendship.


My kids were quite a surprise. From the beginning, they were so smart and independent. They seemed to develop into such fine people through some kind of magical spell.

And I’ve had a few good friends. Each gave me so much in their own ways.

Now I’ve had a number of Zen teachers, again each giving me so much care and teachings. I am grateful for the energies they expend and for the wisdom that they share.

It seems that my only regret is that all these influences are impermanent. Some of these people have died and others gave me what they could and went off in different directions. Luckily, I still have a number of them still around, and find new special ones everywhere I turn.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Fluctuating Emotions

Fluctuating emotions. I made coffee and it smelled good. I planned to take the coffee with me. I was happy. But I left it at home. Because we were late I rushed. I had just bought a new coffee maker and it worked well. I was unhappy because I left the coffee at home. Then at the doctor’s office, they had one of these pods coffee machines. I was a little happier. Usually, the coffee is about 3 or 4 on a scale of 10. This one had better coffee, maybe a 7 or 8. I was happy. Yesterday I taught my grandson to express his feelings on a scale of 0-10. Going to Sunday school was a 3 or a 4. His public school is a 7 or 8. I’m curious about why the difference. (I found out today that he got in trouble at Sunday school because he was too wild. Alas, maybe that’s why the 3 or 4).

It is hard for me to hear him when he’s in the back seat. When we had kids they could survive childhood in the front seat.

I wonder if the grandkids should pursue Bar Mitzvah? Should it be their choice? I’m divided in my mind about it. I don’t like the identification with one being Jewish or Christian or white or black or yellow. I like the idea of being a human being first... not even a man or a woman. But I do like the idea of the kids learning about religion. I rejected history (and religion) most of my life. I didn’t understand that it was who I am. I have an alternative idea that each Sunday I would take the kids to some different experience. But that wouldn’t create the bond and community that the kids get when they do Bar Mitzvah.

I’m always surprised by how many kids quit practicing after Bar Mitzvah. The ones who do come back do so after their kids are grown up. There are exceptions but generally, I see a void of people practicing from 13 to 30.


Sunday, September 8, 2019

Peep Show in Flor.

When I saw Michelangelo’s David in Florence I was unable to look at it. I could just see the hoards of women admiring the 17’ perfect man. Even though he was 515 years old (today) he looked like he was made yesterday. I didn’t realize until reading something today that David was actually 30 when he was finally finished. First one sculptor, Agostino, worked on him before he gave up. Then a second sculptor, Rossellino, worked on him, again giving up. Finally, Michelangelo at age 26 took over the project and, unintimidated by the giant piece of marble, completed the project, despite the mistakes from the earlier sculptors efforts, in two years. Originally David was supposed to be the buttress for the Florence Cathedral, but because 30 years had passed, the marble had become too weak to do anything structural, so that idea was abandoned.

So here’s the perfect man, unable to hold up anything. What’s the meaning of that? If the marble was that soft, how would it have held up anything, even if put in place 30 years earlier?

What can I hold up? We are seeing pictures of the hurricane’s destructive path indicating that not much can withstand wind and water. We say someone is just a lot of hot air, thinking they can’t do much damage. But air can be lethal, as can be water.


Saturday, September 7, 2019

Dantika and the Elephant

K many years ago was doing a multi-projector slide show and it was messing up like nobodies business. She was absolutely calm as she fought with the technology. It was the first time I had met her and I was very impressed by how she handled a very imperfect technology.

A number of years ago the senior Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, was bent out of shape because we didn’t have his books on hand when he came to do a talk. I’ve talked about this many times because I often have that thought that seasoned Zen practitioners shouldn’t “leak”—they should in all situations maintain equanimity.

I read the story of the Dahlia Lama visiting a hospital where there were many with serious illnesses. He cried with each person, but when he left the hospital dropped his sadness and started laughing at a funny joke.

Last night my Zen teacher was bent out of shape because her Apple TV wanted a code that wasn’t appearing on the screen. I told her about K. She said there is no should about how a Zen priest should act.

My chance for equanimity came today. I wanted to go through the new self-serve checkout line at Central Market. A clerk was there to help people. I told him that I wanted to do it by myself. He started pressing my buttons. I said again that I wanted to do it by myself. I started thinking that he was assuming that I was a non-technical old man. He pressed one button too many, and I quit the check out process and started over on another station. I repeated, “I want to do it by myself.”

I’m sure he had the best of intentions and was somewhat shocked that someone might not want help. I’m very conscious of this habit I and others have of giving too much help. I wanted to be challenged by the machine, and I didn’t want another human interaction.

I was aggravated by someone’s good intentions. What I rediscovered today was how I was the source of the aggravation. He just did what he was probably told to do. And I blamed him for aggravating me. That happens to me four or five times a day. Maybe I can get quicker at recognizing the aggravation and then dropping it, realizing that it was I who had created it, not the other person or situation.

Here’s a sweet verse we studied today. Dantika and the Elephant is a story about the first women of Buddhism. She is attempting to tame her mind like the elephant was tamed.



Dantika and the Elephant

translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu
© 1997

Coming out from my day's abiding
on Vulture Peak Mountain,
I saw on the bank of a river
an elephant
emerged from its plunge.
A man holding a hook requested:
“Give me your foot.”
The elephant
extended its foot.
The man
got up on the elephant.

Seeing what was untrained now tamed
brought under human control,
with that I centered my mind —
why I'd gone to the woods
in the first place.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Certainty and Honesty

I saw my neighbor at 6:15 this am and he asked me as he was driving to his grandson’s school, what are you going to attack today? Or something like that. Then he told me I needed an editor because I sometimes misspell words. I do have Grammarly but sometimes it misses. He says I spelled irk erk, but I can’t find it to correct.

My first thought was to write about certainty, which irks me. Anytime I hear people, including me, spout an opinion, I’m irked. We say doing such and such will result in such and such. Especially in an interdependent universe we never know the result of an action. Pinch your kid and he might end up to be the best kid in the world. Or he might be the worst.

But we do need to act. And we need confidence behind our actions. So how to be both have a “not knowing” mind and also act with confidence? I welcome your opinions on this.

The second item is only tangentially related. I’ve had many jobs this week, between my blog, the temple, grocery shopping for a special occasion, etc. Sometimes I asked the help of others and they didn’t come through. They were rightfully apologetic, but that didn’t help. When I thought I’d have a couple of hours I’d have to jump into my car and do whatever.

I think part of the reason I’m not honest is that I want to be liked. But when I perceive people running over me I’m not liking myself, feeling like dirt, to put it lightly. I told someone today that he didn’t meet my expectation. It was probably as much my fault as his. We both had a different idea of what “earlier” meant. But after telling him what I felt something opened up between us.

My neighbor lent me a book on absolute honesty. My wife and I do that pretty well… most of the time. But others, not so well. I think I’ll practice a little more of that, and not be the guy who always says, “no problem.”


Thursday, September 5, 2019

Job and Satan



Carrie Mae Weens (http://carriemaeweems.net/) gave a talk at the Sheldon in St. Louis about 20 or 25 years ago. I went up to her and said, “you certainly seem angry.” “No,” she said calmly, and then, ratcheting up her mood, “I’m furious.”

It seems some view the world as divided between the privileged and the oppressed. Each “side” has a view of the other. Sometimes the privileged say that the oppressed made bad choices. Sometimes they say they were unlucky. And sometimes their heart goes out to them because they face untold challenges through no fault of their own. I won’t try to summarize the oppressed view of the privileged.

Buddha was privileged, so much so that early on he was shielded from sickness, old age, and death. I was brought up like this, denied going to funerals, denied visiting my sick grandmother, and generally told that sickness is psychosomatic and can be avoided through introspection.

I read the story of Job in college and thought that this was very unusual—someone losing everything they had. This would never happen to me, I thought, because my mother said we can avoid all these things by “knowing ourselves” (as Socrates and Dogen both suggested). My sisters and I would joke that our family doesn’t “do death.” Now I’ve lost my parents and siblings. I’ve lost one friend after another. These losses came from a variety of causes, with some losses caused by people not doing the right things to somewhere the individuals seemed to be very unlucky to somewhere their bodies simply wore out.

My rabbi pointed out today that Job was really a story about satan in addition to being a story about Job. Job had his trust in God that was steady. And in the end, all plus more was returned to him. Satan, who some Jews see as an assistant to God that helps us test our trust in God, learns from this “experiment” that some men do have a solid trust even if terrible things happen to them.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Why do people get so angry?

You aren’t supposed to talk about religion or politics at the dinner table because it is bad for friendship and digestion. These are difficult subjects for many of us, and it is largely incomprehensible to me why people get so agitated. I can understand if someone calls your wife a slut, or says that Hitler was right to kill whomever, but many arguments are actually not of this elk. Yet my philosopher and Buddhist priest friends appear very angry when we discuss politics or economics. I’m totally bewildered why people respond in this way.

Take the subject of wages. We should all agree that if we increase wages to a certain point the business will have to go totally robotic or go out of business, and if we decrease wages we won’t be able to find workers. It is difficult to determine exactly where those price points are. What might work in the car wash industry might not work in the fast-food industry. People will get bent out of shape by what I just wrote. They will say that people can’t live on a meager sum. They will also say that some CEOs make obscene salaries and they should give their money away. All of this is probably true.

We could discuss what are the options for these problems. We generally agree that some people work at less than a “living wage.” We can try to persuade their boss to pay them more, we can force their boss to pay them more, we can supplement their income, or we can say, “tough luck.” I haven’t heard of other short term choices. Over the long term, it is possible to increase their productivity potential with more education so that their boss may be more willing to increase their salary. What I don’t understand, once again, is why someone should be angry in a discussion such as this. With each of the possible solutions, we need to look at the costs and benefits. Doing nothing and having people suffer might be something society doesn’t want to do. Doing something usually involves persuasion and/or government action. Again, there is no reason to be mean or angry here. We can work together to find the best solution.


I love the story of the Indian tribe that would have the elders gather around a table when the tribe had a problem to solve. They’d put a pumpkin in the middle of the table and the elders would pretend that the pumpkin represented the problem. They’d work together to understand the problem and find the right solution. I suspect the same would occur when a boat is on fire. The crew should work together to save the passengers below. There is no need or purpose for the crew to start fighting with each other. They need to use all their energies to find the best solutions.

Eckhart Tolle, in his book, The Egoic Mind, talks about how we identify with our beliefs. So when those beliefs are threatened, our very self is threatened. Because I’m threatened when you challenge my beliefs and you are threatened when your beliefs are threatened, we adopt the fight or flight mentality. Nothing is going to be solved with this strategy (or is it really an anti-strategy?)—preserving the hut (see yesterday’s post: Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage) we’ve built rather than finding the truth.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage


We discussed today the Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage,

a poem we read once a month.

A few lines especially struck me today.
I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.
It goes on to say it is a 10-foot square.

Is this the self that we construct? Do we know that it is only made of grass?

M apologized today for having opinions. Our “self” is but one big opinion. I like the idea that our self is so impermanent. Soon it will be covered in weeds.

Maybe we don’t look so great as we get older. Maybe we are covered with weeds rather than fresh grass.

And now the hurricane comes and the hut washes away. Here today—gone tomorrow.

It is sad but also reassuring that it doesn’t disappear, just that it becomes another grass hut or something else.

Another line that struck me:
Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Our opinions are steeped in hundreds of years of conditioning. We sometimes call this, “All our ancient twisted karma…”

It weighs us down. We can’t move. We really can’t think because we can’t consider the other side.

The next line,
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Can you feel the huge load that has been removed from your shoulders?

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Obstinate Student

I was asked, “What is the gift I bring as an offering?”

I’m imagining a gatekeeper on planet Earth. Rather than one being born on Earth where the environment is no longer conducive for the first 20 years of life, we are henceforth born on a space station, and then we can apply to be permitted to live on Earth.

In order to come to Earth, we’d have to bring an offering. But remembering an economist that objected to Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” I’m going to ask of the gatekeeper the opposite question, “What gift will I get if I come to planet Earth.” (I’m obviously at risk with this strategy of being banned forever from Earth, but I hear that the air isn’t clean, and hurricanes and shootings abound.)

We do learn in Zen that there is no separation between subject and object, or between gift, giver, and receiver. Yet in this instance, I’m the one who worked hard on the space ship, cleaning toilets three times a day so that I could make this journey. And I’m the one who is leaving my younger comrades so that I can make the trip.

So I ask again, what does Earth have to offer me?


There are a couple of problems here. One is whether there is something that I need. A second is whether Earth can offer me that.

And now I am reminded what a Burmese monk told me, that monks beg to give people an opportunity to give.

So it isn’t so simple. Maybe this really can be about what I can bring as an offering.

And then, if there is no separation between giver and receiver, there is no separation between gatekeeper and applicant.

I do like the original question as I’ve thought of that when advising people who are applying for jobs. People go into a job interview to see what the job will do for them. Employers want to know what they can do for the company.

I guess one of my offerings is that I question the question. The second of my offerings is I return the question to the gatekeeper. The third of my offerings is that I reevaluate if I want to live on Earth.

I do.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Fight or Flight or Is That So?

How Successful People Stay Calm (Forbes)

Years ago I gave B a note to tape above his desk. I thought it was a Buddhist saying but later found out it is not. It said, “Be Calm and Keep Full Control over All.

I’m struck right now about how yesterday we had a man driving around Odessa and Midland shooting people and today we have a hurricane hungry to wreak havoc on the East coast.

The article points out two practices that enhance our fight or flight instinct: drinking coffee and lack of sleep. Another helpful practice is to disconnect from the grid. I like it that I don’t bring my phone into the temple. Other techniques for reducing stress include breathing, reframing perspectives, and reducing negative self-talk. Last but not least the article suggests that we should not try to do this work by ourselves.

We live in a sufficiently inter-connected world that significant objects of stress will occur every day. Our president, single-handedly, has the uncanny ability to generate daily stress.

So what do we do?

Do we just say, “This too will pass.” The shooter will run out of bullets or run out of victims or take his own life or will be shot. The hurricane will move along a path of destruction and then dissipate.

Is that reframing perspectives?

One thing most of us know is that we’d like to have less stress. Most of us know that stress creates untold havoc on our bodies, our moods and on our relationships. Though if you look at the graph in the article, it suggests that some stress is necessary for Optimal Performance. If all is rosy, then Optimal Performance may not occur.

One of my favorite Zen stories is that of Hakuin who is accused of fathering the child of the beautiful young woman next door. When told that he’s been accused and now will have to raise the child, he responds, “Is That So.” A year later, the young mother confesses the truth. They go and retrieve the child that Hakuin has lovingly cared for. Again he responds, “Is that so?”


Supposedly Hakuin loses his temple in the process. He is shamed in the small town. But he seems to experience no stress. What happened to him is far more devastating than what has happened to me in the last two days, with a shooting 300 miles away yesterday and a hurricane 1000 miles away today. How did he do it?

Nobody Likes a Molehill