Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Houses Again

This house in Scarsdale, NY, is the model for the house where my sister and her husband lived in Sacramento from 1956 until (about) 1962, when the house was sold after the death of my brother in law's grandmother who owned the place.


It's too bad there are no interior pictures of the house. It was really rather grand, especially the two story living room with a huge bay window at the far end.

There is at least one other version of this house in Greenwich, CT. It was listed for sale a few years ago, I believe at an asking price just under $3 million. It had been expanded and partially remodeled in a more contemporary style, but it still retained a number of original attributes.

The house in Scarsdale is Norman French style, though because the house in California had a red tile roof, I thought it was Spanish when I first saw it in 1957 on a visit with my mother from Southern California. Wrought iron lighting fixtures, some gilded, heavy oak woodwork, old gold wall coverings, oriental rugs, wine colored velvet draperies, a Steinway grand piano, I think I was stunned when I first stepped in the oak plank front door.

The house was built in 1923 by the general manager of a local department store. He was the grandfather of my sister's husband. He died in the late forties, I think, and the house was  inherited by his wife. Their son went on to manage department stores in Sacramento and Seattle, while their grandson was at boarding school. When he graduated, he moved in with his grandmother while he attended college. He married my sister while both were students. She moved into this house with him and they had three children before they moved out.

The house was purchased by a doctor who did some remodeling and updating and added a lot of what I thought were excessive French accessories like chandeliers and so forth. I toured the house while it was being renovated and I remember being aghast at some of the things that were done to it. On the other hand, it could have been worse.

My sister was not unhappy to leave it at all. She called it a monster. Way too big to care for by herself, especially with kids, and she was still going to college for her masters. She hired a housekeeper/nanny, but even so, she always felt overwhelmed by the place.

When they moved out, though, they moved to a new but even larger house. I think the stress of maintaining it was at least equal to that of the older house.

There are more stories I could tell about this house -- I have a lot of memories there -- but for now I just wanted to preserve the record from House Beautiful magazine, since I stumbled on it quite by accident today.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Impeachment Thing - Round 2

Gordon Sondland testified before the committee today, and he seemed like a decent sort, not terribly savvy but certainly eager and well-enough meaning to be considered credible. He offered his honest-ish opinion of what was going on during the summer when the White House ordered withholding of some $400 million in military aid to Ukraine while, supposedly, the new president Volodymyr Zelensky was vetted for... well, that's the question, isn't it?

He said the White House -- ie: Trump -- had an ask that needed to be satisfied before the funding would be released: Zelensky needed to clearly and publicly state that he was ordering the opening of investigations into Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and the corruption of gas company Burisma with a focus on the Bidens, père et fil.

That was the deal, the whole deal, according to Sondland. And even though Trump never used the exact terms with Sondland, he did with Zelensky in the infamous July 25 phone call with Zelensky. Case closed.

Sonland basically confirmed the allegations being investigated by the committee. Therefore, there is nothing much more to say, is there? Trump did what he's accused of and "everyone" in the loop at the time knew it. The argument from the Rs is basically "So what? This sort of thing goes on all  the time, BidenClintonClintonObama. Nyah nyah."

And they might get away with it.

The way Trump conducts the business of government is outrageous, but quite a few people inside the government (and not just Rs) are fine with it. He gets them a lot of what they want, and a lot of what they want is a change in the way government and foreign policy operate. There's a lot of resistance from inside the government bureaucracy. Bureaucracy does not like change and doesn't adapt well to new things or people who don't "fit" the standard models.

Bureaucracy considers itself permanent and indispensable, but there is a faction within government and without that believes the bureaucracy is intrinsically wrong and out of control and should be destroyed and/or rebuilt.

Trump has taken upon himself the task of fixing things the way he wants and he's now facing impeachment for it.

I predict right now that neither the bureaucracy nor the White House will win this one. Trump will be impeached for what amounts to the least of his crimes, but he won't be  removed (nor will he be reelected barring the unforeseen) and the government bureaucracy will be overhauled to serve the president much more than the institution or constitution.

There's no going back from where we are. That's the problem. A grossly authoritarian president has been put in office and has been allowedto get away with pretty much whatever he wants, and there is very little that can be done about it now. He's instituted strong-man, indeed gangster rule at the top, and a lot of those who might otherwise object are fine with it. He's packed the courts with right-wing ideologues who share is proto-fascist beliefs, and from them the institutionalisation of the Trumpist authoritarianism will flow for at least a generation to come. There's no going back, and the republic is effectively kaput. This is it. We've reached the long-anticipated end-point of the US experiment in self-government.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Impeachment Thing

[Note: Buddhism, in some cases especially Zen, doesn't preclude one's interest and involvement in the material world. It does, however, affect one's sense of the importance of this or that aspect of it. 🕉]

The current impeachment inquiry is the third in my lifetime. There have only been four attempts at impeachment of a president in the history of  the United States. None have been successful [Nixon resigned before the impeachment resolution went to the floor of the house]. The betting is that this one won't be, either, but of course you never know.

The charges likely to be included in any House resolution to impeach Trump are being laid out day-by-day, pretty much as follows:

  1. Abuse of power -- impeachable, not criminal
  2. Bribery -- of Zelensky/Ukraine; impeachable, criminal
  3. Intimidation of witnesses -- impeachable, may be criminal
  4. Suborning perjury -- impeachable, criminal
  5. Defying Congressional subpoenas -- impeachable, may be criminal
  6. Probably violations of emoluments clauses -- this might be a throwaway
  7. Misprision of felony -- impeachable, criminal
And so on. The charge-list could get quite long indeed. But there is no likelihood, whatever Trump does, that a Republican-controlled Senate would vote to convict and remove him from office. At least not now. 

It's possible that not even a Democratic controlled Senate would do so.

Here's the problem as I see it:

Trump has been allowed to get away with just about anything he wants to do during his tenure in office -- just like he's largely been allowed to do whatever he wants throughout his life. He's a terrible person and a rotten president, but.... he gets away with it, just like he always has.

As president, he's changing the presidency and the nature of the federal government. He's making the presidency over into a highly authoritarian position (it's always had such elements) in command of not just the government, but of the nation as a whole. In other words, the point is to make the president a ruler rather than a servant of the people. Opposition to be crushed rather than co-opted or negotiated with. 

In this remodeling of the presidency by Trump, the president is to have full and personal control of the federal government independent of any advisors, systems, precedent, Congress, or the courts. S/he will personally direct and control every aspect of the federal government (something no individual human being can do, but that's beside the point). The president becomes a de-facto emperor. Something that again is inherent in the position, but which until recently has been suppressed in action.

These are among many aspects of systemic changes we're seeing in real time under Trump's presidency, and they will become precedent for future presidents. Trump may be a bad emperor -- oh yes -- but what he's being allowed to do can lead (in time, if we're very, very good) to a Good Emperor. But Emperor it will be, good, bad or indifferent.

I came to this conclusion while watching part of the Yovanovich testimony yesterday. What it boiled down to was a question of whether the president has the power and authority to emplace anyone he wants in an ambassadorship (yes), and whether it is appropriate for a president to engage in the smearing of an ambassador in the process of having her removed (could be.)

In this case, the ambassador is the avatar of any federal officer, the smear is the symbolic means of removal/replacement that could affect anyone in federal service. We've seen examples in the past (Shirley Sherrod comes to mind, but there have been many others, especially since the 2000 election.)
But now it seems the smear-and-removal will be codified. 

These are big changes to what the presidency is, not so much what it could be, and I predict they will be permanent. Trump can go or stay, it really doesn't matter. The governing system is what is being overhauled-- mostly without the knowledge or consent of the governed -- and there will be no going back. Impeachment may just fade entirely from the conception of checks and balances. After all, the consistent argument during the Trump reign is that ONLY impeachment can be used to control the actions of the president, and if impeachment fails to remove him (likely), there's no remedy under the constitution or law. That's it, he gets away with it.

Ambassador Yovanovich was quite eloquent in defending norm, process, propriety, etc., but I don't see a future in which those things are considered necessities for governing. Indeed, just the opposite may become normalized. The reasons are simple enough. We're entering into a rough transition period in which the consequences of climate change and decades of neoliberalism become one continuous crisis. There's really no escape at this point. Past norms and processes will have to be jettisoned in order to deal with the inevitable crises, or the permanent crisis. No way around it. Trump is crude and awful, but he's doing what the ruling class believes is necessary to cope with the transition and beyond. That's why he's been protected and allowed to get away with so much harm.

Better it should happen now. So that we can become accustomed to it. It's only going to get worse for most of us.

Trump won't be in the Big Chair forever. And whoever comes after him -- whenever that happens -- will almost immediately be considered a "savior".  Because he or she won't be as terrible a person nor as incompetent and chaotic a ruler. 

But Ruler/Emperor the follow-on president will be. And most of the hoo-hah during the Trump years will seem silly in retrospect. We have serious business to attend to.

So, that's my theory of what's really going on... 


Sunday, November 10, 2019

Guided Meditation

For the last few days, I've been participating in guided meditation sessions. At times they make me laugh.

This is a practice I haven't done for decades, and I'm finding it difficult to return to. Guided meditation can be useful, I think, to people who are unfamiliar with the practice of sitting meditation, or to people involved in a therapeutic situation, but I'm not sure it works very well for someone who doesn't fit those fairly narrow categories. It's a technique that's often used as introduction and motivation, and not solely in a Buddhist context.

Introduction to what? Motivation for what? In my case, I was looking to dealing with some habits I'd built up over the years I've been dealing with chronic health conditions. I was in so much routine physical pain for so many years that I had consciously and unconsciously developed habits to cope with the pain. Habits that continued even when the pain was gone. They restrict my movements and actions and my thinking, ultimately interfering with living a relatively full life in my dotage. As I explained to a relative not long ago, I'm pretty much housebound these days, even though the original reason for limiting my activities (pain) has almost completely dissipated.

The pain has been all but gone for the last three years or so thanks to a whole lot of medication and treatment, but the habits I developed to cope with the pain continue. I could say that about a lot of habits I've developed as coping strategies. But I specifically wanted to deal with the habits of pain-coping when there was no longer any pain to speak of.

I thought guided meditation could be useful, and to some extent it has been, even if the guides from time to time unintentionally spur my laughter. One, for example, started the session with a very long introduction, claiming over and over we would be doing a two minute guided meditation, starting "now," and then doubling back on himself and introducing and "starting" the meditation again, and so on repeatedly, so that in the end, the two minute meditation took a good ten minutes and maybe more. Each time he went around the introduction circle I laughed. I don't know whether he was conscious of doing that, and I doubt he saw or understood how funny it was to people like me.

On the other hand, by participating in the sessions (a few more to go) I've been able to focus my attention much better on my particular goals for starting these meditations, and gradually some of the habits that are no longer useful are dissipating or lifting.

Just yesterday, I was able to get up and do things consciously and mindfully without falling back on coping mechanisms that had stymied me in the past. It's going to take some time to work through all of this, though, and that's OK. I can see progress already, and because the necessity to cope is lessened if not altogether gone, I can more easily visualize a forward path.

Many years ago, I had guided meditation tapes that were useful to begin a series of zazen sessions, but I was encouraged not to rely on them, ultimately not to need them. I don't recall how long I used them -- I don't think it was very long -- but it was a little odd to be put back in that guided context again after so many years. My laughter, I think, was prompted in part by the realization that this was something I hadn't done for so long but with which I was very familiar. Is it like riding a bicycle? You never forget? Well, guess what? I can't ride a bicycle very well anymore.

As I gradually become re-accustomed to the dharma, all sorts of things are changing, coming back to me, new paths opening. Christians refer to being "re-born". That isn't quite what's happening. But it is very interesting to witness a kind of automatic youth reversion that carries me back to another time. Or at least evokes it.

Wonders never cease.  

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Unless We Are Japanese

Much of Western Zen practice is modeled on that of Japan -- as would be expected given its origin in the West among immigrants from Japan in the 19th century. Too often, though, I think Zen practice in the West is completely divorced from its Japanese cultural, political and economic context, though not necessarily divorced from its history.

The history points to lines of transmission of the dharma from the Buddha through various teachers in India, then China, thence to Japan where three main schools of Zen developed from Chinese Cha'an Buddhism, and so here we are today. Most Western Zen practice amalgamates these Japanese schools without getting into the weeds of how they came to be and what their differences are and the many and sometime bloody struggles between them.

When the roshi tells you about the peaceful intent of Zen Buddhism, question it.

I've mentioned that Zen is in some respects a warrior cult, and Zen monasteries are partly modeled on samurai training. Zen's origins in China provide the foundation, but the development of Zen in Japan was  closely tied to the samurai and feudal Japanese culture. Zen flourished (and was sometimes repressed) under the Shoguns, particularly so, it would seem, under the Tokugawa Shogunate, the ruling power in Japan from the 1600s until the Meiji Restoration of Imperial rule in 1868.

Zen declined from that point as did all Buddhism in Japan. The Imperial Shinto cult took its place. After the War in the Pacific, as it is called, the Imperial cult declined, but Buddhism, for the most part, did not revive much. Irreligion and secularism became the model to follow under American occupation after the war, but gradually Buddhist and Shinto practices reasserted themselves.

Zen, it must be understood, was never universal or even the dominant school of Buddhism in Japan. It isn't now. It is a special practice meant for a certain class or quality of individual. In old Japan, that was generally the samurai and some elements of the Shogun, Daimyo and Imperial households. In other words, very much upper class. Of course the lower orders could practice zazen, anybody can. But the hierarchy of Zen teaching and transmission, and admission to the monasteries was not open any but the "right sort", and the right sort usually meant high born and wealthy.

Monastic Buddhism can be criticized for being very class conscious. It's hard not to be, I think, given the Buddha's own princely origins. His example may apply to all classes, but he couldn't help being the aristocrat he was. His monastic life was outwardly poor and simple, but it was an aristocrat's expression of poverty and simplicity, not at all something grown from the bottom of society.

And so it has been with most monastics in the West as well as Asia. I don't criticize Zen or Buddhism for its classism, but I do acknowledge it, just as I would with Catholicism or any other religion.

St. Francis, my adopted patron saint, was also the son of an Italian merchant-aristocrat and a high-born French woman.

To see these high-born men and women putting on robes and going out begging is rather stunning when you think about it. But that's the way of monastics. Has been for many long centuries.

That aside, I think it's critical to recognize -- and honor -- Zen's Japanese origins without necessarily "turning Japanese." We in the West don't have more than a very superficial and probably erroneous understanding of Japanese society and culture and how Zen is integrated within it. We may be able to see and touch its outer shape and form, but Zen teaches us that's an illusion. We see nothing, really, because there is nothing really there.

Why would we put on robes or go on pilgrimage or chant the sutras? There's nothing to find, is there? No merit is gained.

There's nothing to learn, nothing to gain, nothing to have, nothing to be. Zen teaches knowing nothing.

There's a cow-kitten at my feet playing with a catnip fish taco.

That is Zen.

Other household cats will practice zazen randomly. We could ask "Does a cat have Buddha nature?" But why? Do the cranes flying overhead know and practice the dharma?

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Palace Zen

Katsura Rikyu (Katsura Detached Palace,  Katsura Imperial Villa) is one of several historic properties  in Kyoto overseen by the Imperial Household Agency. As the former capital of Japan and a strong spiritual center today, Kyoto boasts many historic and important cultural sites. Katsura Rikyu is considered the purest and most expressive example of Japanese "traditional" architecture and an almost perfect example of Zen and Ma in the material world.

Katsura Rikyu was built and expanded over a number of decades during the 1600s by members of the Imperial family -- not the Emperor -- as a retreat and part-time home for its members. It is a complex of buildings situated in a park along the Katsura River several miles beyond the historic center of Kyoto and the historic Imperial Palace. When the capital was transferred to Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration of the 1860s, the Kyoto palaces and temples remained behind and the spiritual and cultural life of Japan stayed rooted in Kyoto as it had been for centuries. Indeed, for the recent enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, the thrones of the Emperor and Empress, kept at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, were carefully dismantled, transported to Tokyo and re-erected at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo for the ceremony. And then they were taken back to Kyoto.

It's worth noting that the Emperor and Imperial family had little public profile and no power in the 1600s when Japan was ruled and controlled by Shoguns and Daimyos. At best, the Emperor was a figurehead. Typically, he was captive to Shoguns.

That's a context that often is not clarified in the sometimes rapturous consideration of the Katsura Imperial Villa as a shining ideal of "traditional" Japanese design and architecture. The Emperor was rarely put on display, and the members of his extended family were, to be blunt about it, "nobodies."

Luckily for the Imperial princes who had Katsura Rikyu built, they married money and so were able to carry out their ambitious though severely ascetic plans.

The result has been preserved nearly intact for us to admire to this day. The Imperial Household Agency -- essentially the Emperor's management organization -- conveniently makes it available for public tours from time to time, along with the other Imperial properties in Kyoto as well as the current Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

Their website hosts some very nice videos of the Imperial properties in Kyoto, and I urge readers to vicariously visit them in order to compare and contrast Katsura Rikyu with the other Imperial palaces from approximately the same time.

I've said that Katsura Rikyu is all but unique. There's nothing else quite like it in Japan or anywhere else, though it was certainly influential in its own time as it still is.

The other Imperial palaces in Kyoto seem excessive and over-done compared to it. Yet in some ways, the others are just as "empty." They are presented with no more furnishings than Katsura Rikyu. The construction module is nearly the same, floor plans are not dissimilar, the stark black and white exteriors evoke one another though they are not the same, and even the gardens and tea houses are similar between the Katsura Rikyu and the other Imperial palaces in Kyoto.

In other words, there is a family resemblance, but Katsura Rikyu is on another plane.

The difference may appear subtle but it's there and it's profound. The difference is Zen.

Zen was a practice deeply ingrained in the samurai warrior culture of the era. It was a form of mind discipline that helped enable and maintain the warrior's supremacy in battle and in life. The Shogunate was an outgrowth of Japan's feudal warrior culture. The Emperor and all things Imperial were outside it, almost irrelevant to the Shoguns and Daimyos. And yet at Katsura Rikyu, some members of the Imperial family took on the task of showing what Zen would look like in the material world. Not at all like the overdecorated and heavy-roofed, vermilion, gold and gem encrusted palaces of the Emperors, Shoguns and Daimyos nor like their temples but rather it evokes the lean, spare, stark, and "empty" houses and gardens of the samurai and the primitive accommodations of the Japanese peasant.

Of course the scale of Katsura Rikyu is quite different, and the materials, fit and finish are on another level altogether, and yet... that can be considered Zen as much as anything else about the place.

As a means of "showing" Zen, Katsura Rikyu puts the many monasteries and Zen temples around Japan to shame. By reducing decorative elements almost exclusively to nature and the moon (very important in Buddhist iconography) and emptying the residence (body and mind) of everything that isn't the "Now", Katsura Rikyu becomes the embodiment of Zen, even more so than its models in samurai and peasant houses and gardens.

But in the end, it's an Imperial palace, quite beyond the wherewithal of any ordinary person or family to undertake and maintain. When it came under Imperial Household Agency control and authority it was partly because no one else could afford to maintain it. It has to be renovated and restored periodically -- at breathtaking expense -- and the gardens, gates and teahouses require constant maintenance in order to maintain an appearance of Zen perfection.

It takes an army of servants even now to keep the place in order and looking its best.

That doesn't come cheap.

As an embodiment of Zen, Katsura Rikyu, of course, is not Zen. The appeal to the senses is undeniable, but it's an illusion. Everything you see, feel and experience there evokes a sensation which is not Zen, and in the end, as captivating as the great emptiness and stark beauty of the site may be, it is neither Zen nor enlightenment.

The perfection of Katsura Rikyu may indeed prevent enlightenment.

That preventional problem has been noted of much of Zen practice. Monasteries, teachers, roshi, the whole panoply of Zen practice has long been criticized as the perfect means to ensure that practitioners, sensei and roshi never achieve satori or enlightenment but remain forever trapped on "the path."

When I initially engaged my interest in Zen in  the early-mid '60s in California, I corresponded with someone at the San Francisco Zen Center. I believe he was from Japan, but as I never met him, I cannot say. I informed him that I could not come to San Francisco at the time, and so I could not be part of the community (sangha) in person. I was told there was no need. One did not have to be there in person to participate, but also one did not have to participate in the community to practice Zazen. Not everyone who could did, and not everyone who did should.

Zazen was a practice that existed independently of Zen sites and communities.

And I've wondered if Katsura Rikyu was an intentional alternative to "monastery/temple Zen;" we might call it "Palace Zen." In many ways, it seems to represent the interest of an individual, rather than a community, in the practice of zazen. A prince could sit himself down essentially anywhere at the site and practice zazen, with or without company, and it seemed to me the whole place might have been intended for just that purpose and no other.

The thought made me smile. 😊

And this gets us into the influence of Zen and especially Katsura Rikyu has had on modern thinking about architecture, dwellings, and so forth.

I mentioned that initially my exploration of Japanese design and architecture which led to my interest in Zen was driven by the fact that the house I was living in at the time featured elements of Japanese design in the roofline and decorative appliques on the facade. The living room also featured a 16' wall of glass with a sliding door, and there were various Japanese or Frank Lloyd Wright inspired touches here and there in the interior. This was fairly radical for the time.

This is a Google street view of the house taken in 2011. You can't see much of the "Japanese" look of the house, except for the roofline over the garage. The rest has either been painted out or replaced as in the case of the garage door which originally had an applied "shoji" design.

We moved in in 1962, but the house was built in 1957, only two years after the publication of "The Japanese House and Garden", and from the outset, I was quite astonished by its Japanese-ish features. The builder was previously known for building thousands of nondescript post-war houses in Sacramento and the Bay Area with no style at all. Then suddenly in 1957, he started offering new houses and floor plans, with a choice of three stylish exteriors -- Farmhouse, Contemporary, and Japanese -- that sold quickly and at a premium price, although the Japanese-ish model was not the favorite. Nevertheless, it was influential, and you started seeing Japanese-ish features on many houses built by other builders until the late '60s-early '70s.

I was taken enough with the minimal Japanese-ish features of our house to eventually add elements like verandas, attempts at extended eaves, and a small Japanese-ish garden behind a Japanese-ish reed and bamboo screen-fence. The front garden was still there in 2011, pretty much as I planted it, but the screen-fence is long gone.

None of it was Zen, of course, but it was pleasing.

The interior of the house was a mish-mash of "builder styles" that was pretty chaotic but late in my residency there, I attempted a minimalist-ish re-design that got rid of most of the accumulations of the decades and limited the chaos. I see it in my mind's eye better than I remember it, though!

My practice of zazen started while I lived there, and it continued for a number of years after I moved out, but by 1973 or 74, I'd pretty much stopped the practice, though probably I should have continued. Or maybe not.

Zazen creates conditions within the practitioner that can lead to satori  (sudden enlightenment) and once it does, if it does, the question arises: what's the point of continuing with zazen? Of course. There is no point. So. One can continue or not after enlightenment, just as one can continue or not before enlightenment. (One chops wood and carries water regardless.)

How liberating! 🕉

My carved wood image of the Kamakura Daibutsu is painted gold so it will glow in the light from Kanthaka. Hotei smiles. A laughing sage stands under cherry blossoms made of silk. The scent of nag champa wafts in the perpetual breeze. Reminders one and all.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Japanese House and Garden and The Space Between

I received the book promptly, despite the electricity blackouts and wildfires in California, and I've been reading it in sections since it arrived. This is the 1955 edition, second printing 1956, so it's not quite the same as the version I read in the '60s. But it's close enough. According to the author's preface, it's a re-do of the original 1935 German version, published in Berlin. In fact, some of the illustrations have German captions. It's a little disconcerting given the circumstances in both Japan and Germany at the time of the original publication, and even in 1955, the bitter taste from the late war -- referred to as the War in the Pacific by the author, Tetsuro Yoshida -- still lingered.

I'm given to believe that Yoshida died in 1956 and he was quite ill during the revision process for the 1955 edition. Thus, I'm somewhat puzzled over how the revisions in the 1962 and 1969 editions came about. Oh well, it's hardly important now...

Yoshida treads lightly on the topic, but he does try to inform his Western readers of how -- and when -- "traditional" Japanese domestic architecture came about. He puts it delicately, but he points out that these "traditional" tatami rooms so beloved in the West have an origin-point in Zen practice by the Japanese warrior class or samurai. The style was developed from prior hybrid Japanese-Chinese styles, but without the Zen and warrior overlays, the asceticism of the "traditional" style would have likely been much less if not completely absent.

Like most people, Japanese love their ornament. The "empty" style was something else again. It isn't entirely ornament free, but it is stripped to the bone. Such ornament as there is is confined to specific places (the tokonoma, eg) and specific times (the tea ceremony, eg.) Otherwise and at other times, there is practically nothing to experience but the bare structural elements of the room or building and whatever people happen to be there at any given time. Not to forget, however, the natural world all around and interpenetrating the empty spaces of the tatami/Zen rooms.

This extreme emptiness captivated Western observers starting in the 19th century and continuing to this day.

The "empty style" is partly the product of the tea ceremony and the tea huts built in gardens of noble properties in the 16th century in imitation of peasant houses. The tea ceremony itself is partly a product of Zen asceticism dating back much earlier but adopted by the samurai and noble classes in feudal Japan starting in the 13th century and becoming almost universal among them by the mid-1600s.

The "empty style" was not the rule among the common people then, nor is it today. Like contemporary minimalism -- which is itself founded in the "empty style" of feudal Japan (::waves at Marie Kondo::) -- it is an important style but not the ultimate or universal style of the entire people.

In fact, if you visit a traditional "empty style" Japanese house today, you'll find they're not so empty at all. By contrast to the illustrations of the "empty style" in books like "The Japanese House and Garden", contemporary lived-in examples are rather cluttered. Lots of things accumulate during living, and despite an apparent abundance of storage in these "empty" houses, there''s really no place to put it all. The "empty" rooms start filling up. In addition, no one today, and hardly anyone back in the day, has or had the wherewithal to employ the army of servants necessary to maintain an "empty" household.

I suspect that originally, these "empty style" houses could be just as cluttered if not more so than what we see in traditional Japanese houses today. And to pile on the criticism, they were, and in many cases remain, extraordinarily uncomfortable.

Of course discomfort was part of the asceticism of the style.

Which goes back to Zen. Let the circle be unbroken....

One of the principal examples of the style, frequently referenced by Yoshida and many others, is the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto, now a museum but formerly a pastoral retreat for the Imperial family, a complex of residential and ceremonial structures and gardens built in the 1660s, and about as Zen as you can find anywhere in Japan, more Zen in some ways than the Japanese Zen temples.

Yoshida uses it as a primary example of traditional Japanese architecture, but in fact it's rather unique. Though there may be some others, I'm unaware of a single comparable complex anywhere in Japan -- or elsewhere for that matter.

Katsura Imperial Villa (aka Katsura Detached Palace) stands essentially alone in its stark simplicity and exquisite emptiness.

A five minute video tour:

Of course it should be noted that the "exquisite emptiness" of the Katsura Imperial Villa is part of the long time museum presentation, not necessarily how it was used by the Imperial family in the 17th century.

But then again, the emptiness of the palace today is part of its charm. And there are many examples of Japanese traditional tatami rooms in houses of all classes, spanning a wide range of eras, including today. A tatami room is ideally "empty" though in practice the rooms are not empty at all.

And there is a concept of "ma" -- the space between -- that is found throughout Japanese culture, Shinto and Zen.

This discussion has become more and more circular, so I'm going to put it to rest. There may be more to come. Or not. 🕉

Friday, November 1, 2019

50 - Again

Today is our official 50th wedding anniversary. Ms. Ché and I were married in Reno on November 1, 1969 and returned to Stockton where we were then living late that evening after dropping my best man off at his house in Citrus Heights. It was a whirlwind day that started off with Ms and I both sitting in meditation in the darkened dressing room of our tiny apartment -- the first "home of our own."

We got together two years before we were married and we celebrated that anniversary as our 50th and the following year we celebrated another 50th. Now we've arrived at the 50th anniversary of our legal marriage.

In order for Ms to get a driver's licence earlier this year, she had to produce a marriage certificate since her last name at birth is different than her married name. She had no idea as there is nothing on the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Dept website that even hints at such a thing. Well, she stormed home when she was told she needed to bring her marriage certificate, and stewed for a bit, wondering what to do. Where was that thing, anyway? What if it was still in California amongst our other possessions still stored there?

She fumed for a while and then got to work in her library/office/workroom where she keeps a lot of our important papers. She had never been asked for a marriage certificate before, at least not in the recent past, so she had no memory of where she had put it. But after about 20 minutes, she came forth with the document (and her birth certificate, SS card, two proofs of residency and her expired driver's license and stormed back to the MVD office up the road.

I've had to deal with that office a few times, and the personnel is very nice. But they're strict when it comes to "Real ID" requirements, and they brook no workarounds. You either have the proper documentation or you don't get a "Real ID."

The thing was, Ms. Ché could find nothing on the MVD website requiring the presentation of a marriage certificate by married women who use their husband's last name, and she printed out the MVD web page to prove it.

The clerk expressed surprise that it wasn't on the website and assured Ms. Ché that she would promptly inform Santa Fe of the problem. Of course I figure the same issue has come up thousands of times before, so I doubt Santa Fe gives a good gott-dam about it, but whatever. Ms. Ché got her driver's license, and there you go.

Yes, we started that day 50 years ago in sitting meditation -- Zen -- but a few years later we would stop practicing, she before I did, and have our adventures, what I'm now thinking of as "life pilgrimage."

A couple of years ago, Ms. spent a few weeks at Naropa Institute (University now) at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics where daily meditation sessions were offered, not required. She took them up. Oh yes.

She reported back that it was the most amazing thing, a reminder of what we did so many years ago, but also different because of the sensei and the sangha context, the large Tibetan singing bowl to signal the beginning and end of meditation, and the talks given by sensei. She said it was not the easiest thing for her elder bones to get up and down from the cushion on the floor, but she did it, and every time she meditated at Naropa, she felt both peace and whole.

When she came back, she brought her renewed Buddhist insight with her, and she was going to set up a meditation corner in the house, with cushion and bell and our painted wooden sculpture of the Daibutsu but realized she couldn't do it because of the cats.

We have cats of course. We've always had cats. Cats are elemental creatures for both of us, we could argue they are totem creatures,  as both of us see our selves and our natures reflected in the cats who live with us. More and more of them have become house cats, which was not the plan -- we had one house cat at first and took care of many ferals. But gradually one or another feral  cat was tamed and began tentatively to join us in the house. We were given a pair of kittens by the neighbor boys. Others have just arrived on their own. Ms. Ché has a strong adoptive instinct, and as more and more cats join us in the house, we have to make certain adaptations to their ways and needs. One of them being a soft, warm place to snuggle. A cushion for sitting meditation would be perfect. In fact, the one Ms. Ché got for that purpose is now a cat-bed. Of course.

Some of our house cats practice Zenning on their own account, Larry being a prime example. He was very hyper when he arrived,  apparently after wandering a good long time. An older feral we called Joe adopted Larry and took it on himself to instruct the younger cat in Zen meditation. I kid you not. Joe had been Zenning out in the yard for a long time, and when he took on Larry, he literally taught him step by step what to do. And gradually, Larry learned. He is now wise and calm, and he goes into Zen state randomly, like a tested master, and he's showing some of the younger cats what to do.

It's almost as if the feral colony is becoming a monastery. But like many other monasteries, not everyone can handle the challenge and they go about their cat-business on a lower plane. Some are clearly ascended masters, though. Larry is very nearly the Abbot of this group though he rarely puts on airs.

When the meditation cushion was given to the cats it meant we would not have a dedicated meditation corner in the house, but oddly that's been liberating. Since we don't have this singular place for meditating in the house, we can and do meditate wherever we are. Randomly. It's a kind of liberation that many practitioners seek but never find. They need and want the structure of regular meditation times and places, wearing regular meditation robes sitting on regular meditation cushions, and all the trappings of "actual" Zen meditation. Otherwise, perhaps, they can't do it. It doesn't feel right.

That's one of the common hazards Zen masters pointed to long ago: attachment to particular places, things, needs and wants. Attachment to people like your sensei or roshi. Without them, you can become lost. 🕉🕉

Indeed. It's true. Learning to practice without the structure you may be used to is a definite challenge which not every Zen practitioner can master or necessarily wants to master.

So, no. We don't have a meditation corner in the house, but we have our workarounds. The sound of the singing bowl is the signal we use for meditation -- just as a small brass bell was 50 years go. We may still have that bell, but if we don't, we have others like it. The singing bowl, however, is a recent nod to Naropa, and I must say, small as it is, it has an impressive tone. Not quite as deep and long-lasting as the one at Naropa's meditation room, but as effective just the same.

When one or the other of us strikes the tone (it is usually Ms. who does), the meditation moment begins.

Not only do we shift into a sitting meditation mode, so do some, not all, of the house cats.

Could we do it without the tone of the singing bowl? Of course.

Our shrine to the  Buddha is also one of the helpful elements as it is a reminder to meditate. The gold painted wooden statue of the Kamakura Daibutsu  is so eloquent that a mere glance is sufficient to put me in that meditative space. 

And so it goes. It's our official 50th, and so we will celebrate in various ways today and tonight.  It's a reminder of our long time together and how very challenging and rewarding that time has been.


Thursday, October 31, 2019

"Y" - Zen.2

I started Zen practice when I was in high school -- in the early-mid '60s. The high school period was a really bad time for me. I won't go into details at this time, but I may at some point. Now that I have "let go" of it I can speak of it, but for now, no.

In fact "letting go" was part of my impetus for practicing Zen. And indeed, in my mid-twenties, a point came when I could do that. Almost all of the bad things that had practically consumed me, indeed, practically killed me, before that moment (and it was a moment) I "let go" went away as if they had never been, and through Zen practice one learns that those bad times had never been. The sense of liberation was profound. And that's when I gave up and let go of Zen practice as well.

It was available at any time, but I felt it wasn't necessary any more.

I went on a wholly different path, a pilgrimage of sorts, which ultimately led me to where I am now, circling back to my youthful Zen era.

The Enso is apropos, no?

The dharma talk I mentioned and criticized and reconsidered in the previous post was in part about pilgrimage and how in many cases the pilgrim is a "nobody" (consider the word) among "nobodies" on the way to something/nothing different, or not. We don't have to get into the details of "some/nothing." It's not really a contradiction, but some would see it that way. The dharma talk proposed that all of us are ultimately on pilgrimage, even if the pilgrim is only taking one step. That step itself can be or represent the whole of a pilgrim's passage.

In Zen practice, the pilgrimage is an important activity, and many Zen practitioners, sensei and roshi go on pilgrimages to Japan, to India, to Tibet, and some now to China (other places too, but those are mentioned frequently) to, I suppose, inhale the same air as the Buddha, trod the same paths as Bodhidharma, explore the same hills and woods as Dogen and thereby... wait, what's the point of it?

Hate to say it, but there is no point. One goes on pilgrimage... because one goes on pilgrimage. The choice of where to be a pilgrim -- if there is a choice -- is almost always a product of desire. And desire, as the Buddha discovered, is the source of suffering.

Letting go of desire relieves suffering and... can lead to enlightenment.

Yet in my mid-twenties I began a life-pilgrimage not driven by desire, at least not desire I was conscious of, that was often a wild ride, yet was always instructional. Every step -- well, nearly -- a learning experience.

Much of it was risky as if on a mountain precipice. Teetering so close to the edge, then somehow falling back toward if not exactly to safety, then teetering again. And again and again.

The nature of a life's pilgrimage can be that of risk, but it isn't always. A single step, for example, can embody an entire pilgrimage, and that step may or may not embody risk. The individual experience is what it is. We don't know and can't say in advance what it will be. Afterwards, we won't necessarily know what it was. In some Zen traditions, we never know and can never know. It never begins, it never ends.

But I don't much want to get into that right now. There will be a time for koans and contradictions. But not right now.

Instead, for the moment I want to focus on the "Y" of Zen -- the "why." Note: "I want to..." is an expression of desire, and I accept that for the moment.

And because it's Halloween and the little ones are swarming at the door, I'll have to put off that "why" for a little while longer.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019


Daibutsu (Big Buddha) Kamakura, Japan c. 1867

Zen Buddhism has often been referred to as a form of psychotherapy rather than a religion, and its practice is seen as a form of self-discovery and repair rather than idle ritual.

Zen practice can be alarmingly difficult, even brutal, particularly in sesshin, but typically it's not. Most people who practice Zen are not destined to become monks or nuns, nor will they become sensei or roshi (teachers or wise leaders). That is neither their purpose nor ambition in practicing Zazen. The goal, if there is a goal, for most Zen practitioners is an inner peace which may -- or may not -- be or lead to satori, sudden enlightenment.

I found in practicing Zazen many years ago that the presence of any desire inhibited practice. One cannot desire enlightenment, for example, or desire to count one's breaths, or desire to clear one's mind. These supposed benefits or objectives of Zen practice cannot be desired while in sitting meditation or the whole point of the meditation is lost. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that meditation itself is impossible in the context of desire.

This is a conundrum and paradox in the Buddhism, one that the Buddha himself wrestled with constantly -- until he didn't. Desire itself, he learned, was the cause of suffering. Lose desire and you lose suffering. But how do you do that?

Luckily we have guides including the Buddha. In Zen many additional threads are woven together. In other words, we learn to practice not just from the Buddha but from a long lineage of disciples, devotees, teachers and masters, each of whom provides a distinct and ultimately necessary insight into the practice we call Zen today.

Why Zen then and not some other Buddhist school or practice? There are quite a few different versions of Buddhism after all. Zen is often considered the severest and most difficult. Oddly, or perhaps not, I didn't find it so at all.

In fact, it seemed remarkably easy.

That's not to say there wasn't inner struggle. Of course there was and still is. Sitting meditation (Zazen) itself, however, is not really hard to do. It's hard or impossible for me now to assume the correct posture sitting on the floor on a thin cushion. Nope, no can do. But it's not necessary. Sitting, yes, but not necessarily on the floor in the lotus or semi-lotus position. No, any position that is not too comfortable for you (so you don't go to sleep!) in a chair or sofa or bench or what have you is fine. The proper Zen meditation position (which I won't elaborate here, but which is quite detailed and complex, at least at first) is a necessity only for monks and nuns in training, and even then, exceptions can sometimes be made. The notion that every Zen practitioner must adhere to the proper form of sitting is laughable.

One sits as one will.

One sits though, and one allots a length of time, usually half an hour, for quiet meditation as one sits. Typically, the meditation period is announced with a bell or other signaling device at the beginning and end of the period. Years ago, we kept a small brass bell for the purpose, but now we use a Tibetan "singing bowl"  -- from Nepal, of course. Anything can be used though, anything that makes a distinct sound when struck, preferably one that holds a tone for a time.

One sits, eyes closed, head down; one focuses on one's breathing and counts one's breaths. That, almost entirely, is it. One does that for half an hour and at some point during the meditation, without really noticing it, one stops counting, one stops noticing one's breathing, one is liberated from thought, concept, presence, and perhaps only momentarily one stops being "one."

Is that satori? Mmm, could be.

Of course when you're doing this at distance, not in company with a sangha or in close communication with a roshi or sensei one doesn't really know whether what one has experienced in sitting meditation is this or that. And in the early-mid '60s, while there were a number of Zen communities in California, they were not directly accessible to me, so I had to do a remote and individualized practice which at the time seemed perfectly acceptable. I started on my own using a thin book as a guide, and then corresponded with a Zen teacher affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center who encouraged my individual practice and didn't seem at all put off that I was doing it on my own. Many people did.

I'm not sure whether I still have the guide book (I suspect not, but with thousands of books accumulated over the years and no card catalog to sort them, who knows?) but at some point, it seemed unnecessary, even superfluous to my practice. Once you get into a sort of meditation groove as it were, guidance becomes more and more problematic.

That's because one's path in meditation is one's own. There are no universal absolutes. Satori is what it is, but it isn't necessarily the same for each individual. The Buddha seemed to understand that. My own Zen teacher certainly understood it. And when I reached a point we no longer needed to correspond, I honestly didn't know whether I had reached satori or not. And here's the thing: It doesn't matter. Because one still chops wood and carries water before as well as after enlightenment.

I thought of attending a dharma talk at a Zen center in Santa Fe a couple of weeks ago. The topic was interesting: The freedom to be Nobody. Turns out I didn't go. It's an hour-twenty to get there, maybe more giving allowance for traffic and possibly getting lost, and I ran out of time. But that's an excuse, as I could have arranged my time more carefully that day than I did, and I could have made it before the start of the talk.

I was put off, however, by some of the non-welcoming attitude, shall we say, of the Center's operation as reflected by its website. Certainly a serious Zen community will have rules, but in this case, it seemed obsessive to the point of absurdity. The dharma talks supposedly welcome anyone who wishes to attend, oh but...

One must arrive by a particular time, one must park in a particular place, one must dress in a particular way, one must observe particular rituals and practices that one might not be familiar with at all, one must engage in zazen as well as kinhin, one is expected to give dana to the speaker... wait, this is crazy. This is not a welcome to anyone who wishes to attend. This is a barricade against that very thing. Deliberately so. It's clear enough to me that this particular Zen Center desires most of all to keep people in general out, and wishes to welcome only a select class of participants and only on very strict terms.

If you don't follow the rules pretty much exactly, you are not welcome.

No, I'd put it more generally: you, a "nobody", are not welcome there at all.

Ironic given the topic of the talk.

A few days later, I listened to the talk on podcast, and I was not sorry I missed it. Well, there are many points at which Zen by its nature is a contradiction. The contradictions and occasional absurdities are part of the practice, and the whys are interesting, but I won't get into them here.

In the case of this talk, which I intend to listen to again, the speaker was not prepared, ran off on several tangents that weren't necessarily interesting in themselves, and ultimately he indulged his own personal desires (yes!) because he didn't know what else to say.

In fact, I'm listening to the talk again now because I suspect I must have gotten it wrong. We'll see.


RECONSIDERATION: All right. My first impression of this dharma talk was wrong. I have listened to it again, and for all its faults, the talk is actually on point, coherent and.. helpful. As a Bodhisattva, the speaker is illuminating the Diamond Sutra with many different lamps in many colors. As a "nobody" on pilgrimage, you may not be welcome everywhere or anywhere, but what's to worry?

I listened before with one ear closed, and I missed much of the talk through distractions, of which there were (are) many. I listened with both ears today, and found a far more complete.talk.  Letting go is a perpetual issue. It may have been simplistic and based in desire, but it was fuller than my initial impressions, and it was not because he didn't know what else to say or because he wasn't prepared.

I may have more to say about pilgrimage and letting go in due time. Which also has to do with my continued reluctance to join a sangha.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Zen and the Roots of Minimalism

Minimalism is a Thing thanks in part to TeeVee celebs like Marie Kondo and others, as well as the roller coaster ride of the ever more expensive and luxurious tiny house movement. The message is that we don't need all the stuff we accumulate, and we don't need big houses to live well, especially after we've disposed of the bulk of our accumulations.

Simple (albeit possibly elegant) living is a good thing in and of itself.

Zen Buddhism is often cited as one of the main source-points of modern simple living ideals and minimalism.

It's not the only one, but it is an important one, especially to people on the US west coast who were influenced by Japanese immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Japanese domestic architecture, itself influenced by and influencing Zen Buddhism, first came into prominence in the West in the 1880s as the island nation was being extensively explored and remarked upon by observers from the United States, England and Germany.

Japan was for them a revelation. Its contrast with Europe and the United States was widely admired though often discounted because of the general racism of the era. The Japanese and their domestic architecture might have some admirable qualities but they could not match the extraordinary accomplishments of civilized nations.

Could they?

In some ways Japanese domestic accommodations exceeded Western ones -- particularly in honesty, simplicity, cleanliness, artistic effect, and comfort, so long as you were accustomed to it. In fact, Western observers were often distinctly uncomfortable in Japanese domestic accommodations, as there was essentially nothing in them with which the Westerner was familiar. There were no chairs or beds or rugs or window hangings. There were no doors or windows as a Westerner would recognize them. There was no paint or paper on the walls, and in fact there were few walls at all. There were no glittering and glaring light fixtures, no bric-a-brac, no high plastered ceilings, no effort at all to imitate the style, look or finish of any previous era or location.

And yet once the Western observer was able to let go of his expectations of domestic accommodations and accustom himself to the Japanese ways, he found himself astonished and entranced. Disbelieving and yet delighted.

For all the absence of things in Japanese domestic accommodation, the result was liberating. The revelation of this liberation was to be immensely influential as it still is today.

Minimalism had long been practiced as a kind of rule in the West -- think monasteries and such-- but in Japan it found a style. 

Zen Buddhism was at the root -- and yet Japanese domestic architecture could be said to be at the root of Zazen: sitting meditation. The Empty Center.

The fact that Western observers remarked upon most often was that Japanese houses were almost completely empty -- or at least appeared to be in contrast to the superabundance of stuff that filled and overfilled typical Western houses in the Victorian era.

Another phase of Western minimalist living was about to be born.

Minimalism in the West had always been associated with religious and monastic life. So it would be  with minimalism derived from Japanese domestic living, a lifestyle at least in part derived from Zen Buddhism, but also helping to influence the practice of Zen.

The only thing is, Zen is not a religion, it's more of a practice.

One sits.

One counts ones breaths.

One empties ones mind.

Anyone can do it almost anywhere at almost any time.

One sits, meditates and then goes about his or her day.

That day may include any number of different activities, all of which/none of which have the potential to lead to satori. Enlightenment. Sudden, unanticipated.

But then, maybe not.

The minimalism of Zen Buddhism can be an aid to satori. But then, anything can. Or nothing.

And so it goes.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

"O"- Zen

I started Zen practice in high school, sometime between 1964 and 1966. I had become intrigued with  traditional Japanese architecture, as so many Westerners are, in part because the house I lived in at the time had a few Japanese style details.

My interest was sparked, though, by a large format book -- not quite coffee table size -- that I either bought or checked out of the library (probably the latter) that covered traditional Japanese domestic architecture with numerous extraordinary black and white photos, floor plans, and scholarly text that I found fascinating. I believe one of the authors was Japanese; indeed, the entire book may have been a Japanese production. I believe the title was "The Japanese House and Garden" (*) published in 1962. But my memory is so full of holes and blank spaces these days, don't take my word for it.

Thanks to the inspiration of that book, I must have designed and drawn dozens of houses in the Japanese style. I think I still have one or two of them in a portfolio out in the studio.

The text made numerous references to Zen Buddhism as part of the motivation for the style of many Japanese houses as well as the often hyper-minimalism of their interiors and gardens. I was constantly amazed at how empty seeming these houses and gardens were -- especially in comparison to typical Western style -- and yet how abundant all this emptiness seemed. There seemed to be so much space, even in tiny 4.5 mat rooms, or 3 X 7 meter gardens. Construction details were fascinating, particularly the construction of houses and tea-houses that utilized no nails or other metal fastenings.

The constant reminders of "abundant emptiness" led me eventually to start studying Zen with a detour or two through Jack Kerouac's ramblings on the road and as a dharma bum. I found a master I could correspond with as there were no Zen centers near where I was, and I began to sit in meditation, counting my breaths and clearing my mind. I was no more than 17 years old. I ceased practice in my mid twenties. I was never really good at it, to hyper and ADD most of the time, but the elements of Zen practice never really leave you once you've taken them in. You just don't do it all the time.

I spent the next 40 years or so doing something else.

That led me down a variety of different paths and all over the country, learning and teaching all the way. One of the things people noticed about me was how calm I could be under stress. Yes, well... that's part of what "letting go of attachment" means. It doesn't mean you don't care. It does mean you're not attached to a particular state or set of circumstances or people or things. You're just there in
the moment.

What I call "O"- Zen is in part that absence of attachment. It's also "abundant emptiness." The "empty circle" -- Enso -- which symbolizes the center: some/no thing.

Enlightenment. Not that that was a state I ever achieved 😃🕉

"O"- Zen is also my term for the way space is shaped and used in traditional Japanese architecture.

So here we are, many decades down the road, and slowly, slowly, I'm returning to the practice, but so far only intermittently and only in part. First, I'm unable to sit in proper Zen posture. There are plenty of things I'm physically unable to do anymore, and that's all right. I'd usually been doing too much anyway. Or trying to. But being unable to assume the correct Zen sitting posture, and being unable to rise from that posture if somehow I was able to do it is difficult to accept. I'm not 17 anymore!

I take a shit-ton of powerful medications to control my condition -- so far, doing good -- but there are noticeable side effects, one of which is apparently memory loss and brain farts. I brought it up with my rheumatologist earlier this month. He was... concerned, especially when he witnessed one of the problems I had remembering and saying the name of another specialist I see from time to time. I just couldn't get it out. It wasn't coming into my conscious mind, and so I couldn't say it, though only moments before we were speaking about her as if she were in the room.

Well, that's an example of how holey my memory has become, especially regarding short term matters, so there may come further tests and medications. We shall see.

And then, "O"- Zen. 😃🕉
(*) NOTE: I did some research, and by golly, that is the title of the book that pointed me to the dharma path. Surprisingly, it was first published in Germany in 1935, during Hitler-time, and I vaguely remember its German origins. Its original publication in the US was in 1955, but the edition I was so taken with was from 1962 or 63. I haven't found any reference to a 1962 edition but I have seen references to 1963 and 1969 editions. I have not found any illustrations from the book on line, but I remember the photographs, plans and drawings as remarkable, some even breathtaking. They live in what's left of my mind to this day. The link in the post is to Questia's online excerpts, text only, but quite a bit of it is included in the Table of Contents on the right of the linked page.

I'm wondering how it was received in Nazi Germany. I know I was astonished by it.

FURTHER NOTE: I just ordered a copy of the 1955 edition, but the outfit selling it I think is in a portion of California currently under power blackout thanks to PG&  E. We'll see whether it arrives...

Monday, October 14, 2019

Pondering the Question of Tibet

As we know, China is the rising super-power while the US continues to falter and decline. The Chinese have created a nigh-on miraculous transformation of their society in a very short time, and this isn't the first time they've done it. The whole Mao-ist revolutionary period was one enormous transformation after another, almost unprecedented in world history. The current rise of China would be unbelievable if we didn't have the prior examples of Chinese transformations to consider.

Part of that transformative process has involved Tibet, a supposedly autonomous province of China that has been subjected to repeated waves of "reform" by the Chinese under Mao and every subsequent central government with the stated objective of getting rid of Tibetan barbarism, backwardism, and worse, while bringing the benefits of modern civilization to uplift the Tibetan masses and guide them into the 21st Century -- while preserving as much as possible of Tibet's unique and ancient culture.

That has meant in practice overthrowing rule by the lamas, exiling the Dalai Lama, disrupting and partially destroying the lamasery system, freeing the Tibetan peasantry from what had amounted to serfdom and in some cases outright slavery, bringing codified law, plumbing, drainage, electricity, roads and railroads, universal education and so on to the masses, instituting public health practices and much more in what is objectively a colonial/imperial project, driven from Beijing, to integrate Tibet into the Greater Chinese Domestic Empire.

In the West there is a highly romanticized notion of what Tibet was like prior to the Chinese revolution. We are ledto believe it was some sort of primitive paradise under the lamas, happy people spinning prayer wheels all the live long day while the Dalai Lama and his lines of Buddhist monks and nuns preserved, protected and defended ancient peaceful Buddhist practice from the Potala in Lhasa to the hundreds of lamaseries throughout the country.

Truly, that romantic version of Tibetan Shangri-la is... off the mark by quite a bit.

The Chinese knew how phony it was, but so did numerous Western travelers and observers -- prior to the Revolution, that is. Tibet as it was, and as many observers testified, was demon-haunted, riven with violence and intense poverty and disease, grossly and deliberately kept backward by the lamas, and despite the constant spinning of prayer wheels, was a society that was too often behaving the opposite of Buddhist practice.

Chinese intervention was not welcomed, not by a long shot, but resistance was futile, as is so often the case with colonial/imperial projects launched from powerful centers. There was-- and still is -- resistance though, and China has not been able to fully transform Tibet into a glittery simulacrum of what so many people seem to believe it once was. It's an uncomfortable hybrid of Chinese driven "progress" and oppression together with surprisingly strong remnants of its former lama-driven but essentially cruel feudal past.

This is the Chinese propaganda version of the Tibetan transformation since the Revolution:

Nice, right? Well, it's not quite like that. The gloss is not quite so shiny, and the benefits of living under strict Chinese colonial control are less than ideal for many Tibetans who face severe restrictions on their freedoms of belief and action and punishment for disobedience and resistance.

This is the Dalai Lama's propaganda version of Tibet Today and Yesterday:

Horrible, right? Well, it's not quite like that.

A different take:

Like most colonial projects, Tibet since the Chinese take over has been a mixed bag. There has been immense material progress while suppressing the lamaseries. There has been resistance and acquiescence. The Chinese have sought to sanitize and monetize the Buddhist, lama-dominated  Tibetan culture while exploiting the land and people for the benefit of China. All of which is typical of colonial projects undertaken in the West over the past centuries.

In addition, Han Chinese have emigrated to and settled in Tibet in numbers sufficient to make them the majority of the population. It's not clear to me whether they are unwelcome, any more than it was obvious that the British were unwelcome in all of their various colonies during the Imperial period.

Colonization is a mixed bag.

This is something I sometimes get into with regard to my Irish ancestry. Ireland was for 800 years a colonial possession of Britain, and for much of that time, the British behaved badly to say the least. Eventually, the Irish achieved a rough form of autonomy and then independence from Britain -- except for those in Northern Ireland who are still to this day subject to the Crown.

The Irish Republic, however, is almost as proud of its British heritage and legacy as the home country is.

You would think that once Ireland achieved independence, the Irish would reject pretty much everything the British imposed on them, and they haven't. Not even close. Same with India, Ceylon, Burma, Singapore, etc., etc. The United States, among so many other former colonies, treasures its British colonial past.

And so it goes. From the outside, it looks like that's the course Tibet is on as well. Ultimately, China's colonial impositions will be put in an overall positive context while acknowledging the bad things that happened.

Under the lamas, Tibet was a cruel and brutal feudal and demon-haunted place, not at all like the Shangri-la paradise of lore and legend or as hinted by mostly Western "Free Tibet" activists. The lamaseries had so many thousands of monks and nuns in part because they were places of refuge ("I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma; I take refuge in the Sangha.") from a truly awful outside reality, full of suffering and woe. The Chinese disbanded and destroyed many of the lamaseries -- and preserved others -- while transforming the domestic society into something more closely resembling the modern material societies in China and elsewhere.

Is this a good thing? Not entirely, and not necessarily in any case, but given their druthers -- which is unlikely -- I doubt that most Tibetans would want to go back to the way things were before the Chinese took over.

They, like most colonized people, like much of the material benefit that comes with colonization. They like running water, decent housing, electricity, paved roads, automobiles, and electronics. They like education and opportunity where once there was none outside the lamaseries. The elements of progress make their lives easier and potentially more rewarding. They like the end of arbitrary rule by cruel landlords. lamas and village chiefs. They don't like the oppression and suppression that seems to be built in to the Chinese psyche. They don't like having their faith and beliefs challenged by modernity and materialism, even if they like the benefits. They don't like their traditional ways of life being replaced by... what? Colonialism always leaves the question open.

I ponder the question of Tibet these days because of my slow-walking return to Buddhism after so many years in another realm of existence altogether. Tibet is a primary Buddhist center, both for philosophy and practice, and the Dalai Lama is the principal Buddhist spokesman in the world today, widely revered even by non-Buddhists.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

On Rule by Bullies and Their Toadies

It's gobsmacking how the bullies and toadies of the Trump regime are constantly able to pull victory from the jaws of defeat -- no matter what.

Even if the Impeachment Circus manages to culminate in Trump's removal -- I doubt it will -- the legacy of chaos, corruption, lies, fantasies, fabrications, and bullying will remain, not to be easily undone, perhaps forever more.

Some observers like to say that whatever is happening, whatever the regime is doing, whatever Trump is saying, and however much is disrupted, it's all "wonderfully clarifying," as if we wouldn't have known how rotten and diseased our politics and ruling paradigms are otherwise. Bollocks. Utter bollocks. We knew, we've known, I've been writing about it here since 2007 and before that in many other venues almost since the Internet began in earnest.

We knew. We know. "Clarification" is not the necessary element at this point. What's needed is action, profound and serious, to correct course, and I simply don't see that anywhere in the political firmament or in the increasingly captive realm of influencers and commentariats. It's almost all ruled by bullies and their toadies. No one else has a voice. And there is no goodness at or near the top anywhere.

Certainly there are no saviours. Not in today's politics, nor in academe, nor in any of the various sectors that rule us. Trump and his regime may represent the worst of it, though I'm certain there are worse examples we could dredge up from the depths of the muck, but taking them out of the picture, it's still really dreadful. As it has been for many a long year.

Yet we carry on because we must. It's instinctive.

Goodness may not be on the horizon no matter how hard we yearn for it, yet there are always escape hatches and alternatives.And they'll be turned to more and more as things deteriorate for the masses.

A key to understanding the situation is the realization that We, the Rabble are expendable. That's key to recognizing how bullies and their toadies are able to rule no matter how bad or incompetent or worthless they are. None of us, the Rabble, are necessary to their way of looking at things, and the only reason we're here at all is because they let us live. Period.

Some of us may have some utility some of the time, but none of us are necessary.

That is supposed to lead us to being grateful. If we're not, there are always things that can be done to make us feel appropriate gratitude or to relieve us of our mortal coil. It's just that simple at bottom.

Whoever/whatever replaces the Trump regime may or may not be qualitatively better, may behave less outrageously, may show some signs of competence and compassion, but at bottom will still believe what the Trump regime believes about the rest of us, and will still act on that belief one way or another -- though perhaps with more caution than the Trumpies have.

We will not elect a Good Emperor after this shitshow.

No, a dismal precedent has been set in concrete. Elections may continue indefinitely -- they did in Ancient Rome, after all -- but their meaninglessness will be made clear as well. The Emperor will be chosen, by whom is not entirely clear, but it won't be by the People. Neither will it be by a monolithic Ruling Class. That class is riven with factionalism, fractured and in disarray. The young-ish "disrupters" of Silicon Valley are jockeying for ultimate power, and so far, the Ruling Class resistance to them is more stylistical than substantive. As long as the disrupters are able to keep the masses from coalescing, so be it. Otherwise, though, no.

So Zuckerberg may be a strange, alienish, robotic something or other, and Bezos is a bizarre offshoot of the human race, and so many of the other would-be High and Mighty tech tycoons likewise, they are useful enough that they're kept around by the faltering and factional Ruling Class. They may one day emerge as the successors to today's Ruling Class, but they will be no better. Arguably, they will represent the continued devolution of the Class.

And they are no less devoted to bullying and toadying. It is how they've achieved what they have, and how they fully intend to expand and maintain it.

To the extent they are able to exploit the rest of us they will do so. Otherwise, enh.

What to do?

Tolstoy wrote a book (173pg pdf) that seems almost as pertinent today as it was 130 years ago.

I may have more on this topic shortly, but for now...

Wednesday, October 9, 2019


This is our Buddha shrine. There's more to it, but you get an idea. It combines some of the aspects of the Buddha stories including the elephant, horse, other animals and plants, followers, centered meditation, and so on. It's not a place of worship, it's a place of reminder. As are a number of other shrines in the house, some focused on Native elements, some on St. Francis, some of them unfocused, such as the one in the bedroom that includes several carved birds, a dinosaur model, a tiny black and white cat, and cornmeal offering.  Not to forget the skull images from Dia de los Muertos. Of course.

This is New Mexico where a polyglot amalgam of faiths is relatively commonplace. Honoring tradition is a basic cultural element in these parts, and tradition plays a huge part in faith communities. What was done hundreds of years ago is for the most part the same cycles and rituals done today.

I don't know the history of Buddhism in New Mexico, but there is a strong and growing community of practicing Buddhists and a diverse community of laypeople professing some aspect of Buddhist practice. I wouldn't call it "belief" because there isn't anything in particular to believe in Buddhism. One practices. One sits, one meditates for varying lengths of time, one goes about one's day. One studies the sutras or not,  one questions, one takes action to be kind, compassionate, joyful, and "detached." One is not what one does or says or thinks or believes. All of that is illusion.

Even the concept that one is is an illusion. But this path of thought cannot lead to Enlightenment. It is more like an eternally turning wheel, not the Dharma Wheel, but not not it, either. Letting go of the concept of Is-ness is itself an element of Buddhist practice, but even perfect letting go is not sufficient in itself to achieve Enlightenment or Buddha-hood. Not that that is necessarily desirable in and of itself. It is simply something that may happen -- or not.

I've had the Diamond Sutra on speed dial lately. It never struck me as particularly profound, and I'm not sure it's meant to be. It's more in the nature of a reminder of how transitory our corporeal existence/experience is, and how false in some ways (all ways, no ways) it is. We live in illusion, creating that illusion as we live.

A talk on the meaning/not meaning of the Diamond Sutra is appended herewith:

Zazenkai: Inside the Buddha’s Body

(email sign up required to listen, but it's relatively stress -- and marketing -- free)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Was Greta the Catalyst for Impeachment of Trump?

The Speaker of the House at long last has announced the "official" start of an impeachment inquiry into the actions of the President of the United States -- apparently over the revelations that the Intelligence Community's Inspector General received a "credible" complaint by an internal whistleblower about...something... an unspecified official (presumed to be the president) did that was inappropriate and possibly illegal with regard to a foreign leader earlier this year.

OK. This is all pretty murky. The IG made a presentation to the House Judiciary Committee but was unable to supply the requested complaint itself as the Director of National Intelligence had refused to release it to Congress on advice of the Department of Justice, despite clear language in the law that required the matter to go before Congress for consideration.

Apparently the DoJ in the person of the Attorney General decided to override the law, claiming to have evaluated the matter as "not urgent."

The matter is assumed by the media to be about the president pressuring the recently elected leader of Ukraine to reopen an investigation of Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden, with regard to his service on the board of a Ukrainian gas company some years ago along with Biden's father Joe's request of the former government of Ukraine to remove the prosecutor who had been investigating the company but who was considered irredeemably corrupt both inside and outside the country.

But it is not entirely clear that's the case.

Up to now, Nancy Pelosi has been adamantly opposed to any formal impeachment process in the House of Representatives, often claiming that "the people" aren't supportive of it, and therefore it shouldn't be done.

Suddenly something changed.

Meanwhile at the United Nations, Greta Thunberg made an impassioned speech to the Climate Forum, j'accuse style, that set the world abuzz.

Take a listen:

She shamed the leaders of the world in less than five minutes, shamed them for doing less than they should, or doing nothing at all, in the face of a global existential climate crisis that if unaddressed spells doom for her generation or shortly after. "How dare you!" she bellowed, and her rage was felt around the world.

Meanwhile in DC, the same levels of outrage had been building for years at the inaction of the US Congress and (usually) the courts to hold the current ruling regime and the president to account, to curb their excesses, and to look into impeaching Trump's sorry ass for numerous offenses against simple decency and law, let alone the unending chaos of his regime.

Nancy wouldn't do it. Republicans wouldn't do it. Nobody would. The shit show went on and on, and nothing was done about it by anybody who could do anything about it. The leadership in DC at every level of every party was failing badly.

And then Greta made her speech at the UN and things almost immediately started changing. Maybe not fixing climate, no, but starting finally to think about fixing grossly dysfunctional governments that have failed badly for a generation or more. It's long past time.

At this point, though, it may be too late, either for the climate or for governments. The tipping point may be passed, and there is no going back.

We'll see...

Monday, August 26, 2019

Among the Swells in Santa Fe

As many know, Santa Fe is home to a lot of rich people, mostly older people who made their money elsewhere and have retired to this tail end of the Rocky Mountains to live and love among their own kind but with "Santa Fe Style".

While we are older, we are far from rich. We don't live in Santa Fe, and truthfully I wouldn't want to -- though Ms. Ché occasionally casts longing glances there or toward Taos -- but in the little town where we do live our income makes us pretty well off. I sometimes think that we could afford to live in Santa Fe (it's a very expensive city) but barely. Half or more of our income would go for housing; we'd have little or no discretionary income for doing the things we do, whether it's travel, education, health care, or purchasing art. We are only able to donate a substantial portion of our income to various causes in part because we don't live in Santa Fe!

And because we are able to buy art and donate to museums and educational institutions, we are sometimes invited to mix and mingle among the swells of Santa Fe, which in fact we did a while ago at a get together of museum donors, art collectors and fancy people at the home of one of Santa Fe's big collectors in Las Campanas, a very tony newer large homes-on-acreage development on the outskirts of the city.

We'd never been to Las Campanas before. We'd heard about it and about the kinds of people who live there, mostly retired rich people who want to live in something newer that they've had built themselves rather than the often rattletrap money pits on the tiny lots of the Historic Eastside where some of Santa Fe's highest dollar movers and shakers have lived for generations. It's freedom to be out in the country on acreage, with views to die for, and little of the hub bub of the city. In town living is not for faint of heart. Despite the fact that Santa Fe is a small city, traffic can be horrendous, and it can be difficult to get around at the best of times let alone when one or another market or festival is under way. Which is pretty much always.

So, out to Las Campanas we went, taking the trusty red van because the car is in the shop, tooling along seemingly forever on the "Relief Road" to get to the entrance road to Las Campanas, Camino La Tierra, then to thread out way along twisty-turny one lane, one way roads up hill and down dale, making only one wrong turn until we got to the gate that blocked access to the house where we were to have a tour and eat some grub. Handily, a security guard was on duty and opened the gate for us with a great big smile, and we found some place to park on the narrow street out front of the house. There were already a lot of cars, and we weren't even particularly late. My. It seemed like there would be many more than the 40 guests maximum, but no, when we got inside and made a quick count, there were barely thirty, and as the evening progressed no more than an additional five or so arrived.

We knew some of them, but many more were strangers to us, and I'm afraid I was somewhat standoffish with people I didn't know. The hosts were new to us, but very charming, and we felt warm and welcome in their company. We did not initially make a thorough inspection of their collection, but my goodness, just the things within the walled outdoor area were breathtaking.

The house was not as large as I expected, but it was on a three acre lot on the brow of a ridge, and from the back patios, the view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was spectacular. Thunder storms were gathering, but we paid the weather little mind as we munched on brie and prawns and homegrown grapes and chatted with various guests, most of whom were our age or older, much richer, and -- perhaps sadly -- mostly lone females. Oh, how many were widows?

The hosts were an interesting couple. He considerably younger than she. She was from Germany, and she reminded me very much of a charming German woman I'd met in Albuquerque some years ago at the Peace and Justice Center where we attended a PBS film about Native children in New England who had been taken from their parents and raised in the equivalent of old-line boarding schools or farmed out to foster care and how they were coping with the experience as adults.

Most Americans have little idea there are present day Native tribes in New York, New England and on much of the east coast as far south as Virginia and beyond. The stories of removal of the Cherokees and others from the Southeast are so strong, there is little inkling that a few Natives still populate many areas of the east. The stories told of the horrors many have endured and still do, however, are heartbreaking.

I chatted with this German lady (whose name I don't recall) after the film presentation because she wanted to talk about how she became interested in Native Americans. How did she, a middle class girl in Germany, become so fascinated with Native Americans that she eventually moved to the Southwest and immersed herself in American Indian culture, lore and legend? She asked me if I'd ever heard of Karl May.

Oh yes, my yes.

I had recently studied some of his works for reason I don't recall (memory not being my strong suit any more). Karl May was a prolific German writer in the last quarter of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th Century. He wrote novels, essays, magazine articles and so on, hundreds and hundreds of major works, and probably thousands of minor works and sold hundreds of millions of volumes, many dealing with the American Wild West -- where he'd never been.

His stories of Winnotou the Apache chief, and Old Shatterhand, the white adventurer, were wildly popular in German speaking lands, a popularity that continues to this day, somewhat like the works of Mark Twain in the USA.

The German woman I met and chatted with at the Peace and Justice Center in Albuquerque had grown up reading Karl May novels of the Old West, and as soon as she had the opportunity, she had traveled to the Southwest US to see the lands and people May had described in his books for herself.

She said what she found was even more wonderful than Karl May's invented world, and she vowed one day to live here. And so she did. The story of how she came to live in the Southwest US was as much of an adventure story as anything Karl May wrote. I won't go into the details -- partly because I don't remember them all -- but as we toured the home of our hosts and heard their stories, I was strongly reminded of the stories I'd heard from a lovely German woman years ago. Could I be hearing from the same woman at her home now? I was hearing about Karl May, about her determination, about adventure that continues today, and about a deep and abiding respect for American Indians, a view and respect of the Native Peoples she had learned from popular novels in Germany.

I don't know whether the women were the same one or doppelgangers of one another. I didn't have the opportunity to ask our hostess whether we had met years ago in Albuquerque, and knowing how nervous Santa Fe residents are regarding Albuquerque ("I wouldn't go there for any reason, except to pick someone up from the airport -- and then only if I had to" we've heard more than one Santa Fean say) it might not have been appropriate for me to raise the subject among so many Santa Fe swells. But I continue to think she might be the lady I'd talked to about Karl May years before in Albuquerque.

The art collection we'd gone to view was certainly extensive, and according to our hosts, they'd had the house built specifically to showcase their collection. It did that very well indeed. Many -- perhaps most  -- of the collection had come from their home in Virginia after being transported there from Santa Fe over many years of back-and-forth. Now they had returned to Santa Fe.

Most of the collection focused on Native American art and artists, but there were some remarkable "other" things, including a Kandinsky, a Warhol, several Red Grooms works, a Janis Joplin drawing, and so on. The non-Native works were mostly confined to hallways, offices, and other less public areas of the home.

Among the Native American artists featured were three or four we knew well, and their works were all over the house, so many of them we felt like this couple were their primary patrons. Could be.

Our own collection cannot compare in terms of monetary value. I would estimate the value of the couple's collection at several million dollars, possibly as much as $10 million. Conceivably more.

That's not all that unusual in Santa Fe, but we were chatting with some gallery owners/operators a couple of weeks ago who said that the art market is doing poorly these days, despite the fact that some people are doing very well financially. There's plenty of money sloshing around. The problem seemed to be that older people with money were disposing of their collections -- which put downward pressure on prices -- while younger people with money weren't interested in purchasing art. They wanted to travel, buy fine cars, eat well, and they kept their residences small and simple with little or no room for art. It was a dilemma. There was so much art on the market but too few buyers.

One of the galleries had really high-end historic regional art for sale, paintings from the early 1900s to the 1970s, breathtaking prices --$100,000 +, and yet they were actually 30% to 50% lower than they might have been 10 years ago. I've seen the same phenomenon happen with (some) classic cars, antique furniture, and other collectibles. Despite obscene levels of wealth among the high rollers, what they buy these days is not what once appealed to them. They aren't even buying expensive jewelry at anywhere near the amount they once did when they weren't as rich. What gives?

I have a theory which I can't document, it's just a sense. These people know quite well the peril the planet is in due to the consequences of climate change. They've been preparing for years, and part of the preparation is finding locations that will be relatively safe from sea level rise and temperature extremes -- Santa Fe and environs is one of those locations.

I've written about Jeffrey Epstein's Zorro Ranch up the road from our place and 20 miles or so south of Santa Fe. Well, it's just one of many similar retreats should everything go to shit.  He bought and built it 20 years ago, and ever since the tendency to establish such retreats from catastrophe has only accelerated. They're expensive.

To have one that is both accessible and defensible (as Zorro Ranch is/was) is difficult and costs a fortune. To keep it supplied, patrolled and defended even more so. To the extent the money of the rich is going anywhere, I suspect that's where it's going. Priorities...

(Just a quick note on Zorro Ranch activities lately. We pass by it every time we go to Santa Fe and return, so we can keep tabs on visible activity there. There are parts of the ranch we can't see from the road, but we can see the gigantic hacienda, the worker-village, the gate to the property, the microwave and cell-phone towers, the cattle, etc. New No Trespassing signs have gone up on the fences by the road. There's a prominent one beside the gate. Exterior lights are on at the hacienda, but there don't appear to be interior lights on in the house much any more. Lights are on in the workers' village. We have not seen patrol vehicles since that one time I mentioned weeks ago. There have been attempts to enter the ranch by people unknown. For example, one day there were two white SUVs stopped at the gate, both apparently filled with passengers. A young-ish slim brunette woman was standing beside the first SUV talking to the driver. I'm pretty sure she was part of the party trying to get in.. I suspect they were media. There have been previous unsuccessful attempts by media to get through the gate. Once a British accented woman answered the gate buzzer and was quite curt with media trying to get in. Staff in pickups comes and goes periodically. The exotic cattle still graze. In other words, the ranch appears to continue in operation, but except for that one time we saw the hacienda lit up as if for a party, the main house appears to be unused. But who knows? And yes, there is supposed to be a secure bunker of some sort under the hacienda. Speculate as you will...)