Saturday, November 27, 2021

Morning Coffee



We make our morning coffee in an 8 cup Revere Ware stove-top percolator. We have a number of electric percolators, some of them quite old, all of which 'work' in that they will percolate a pot of coffee. The only problem with them is that they don't stop when the pot is done -- even if they are supposed to. No, they keep right on percolating away, just like the stove-top one will do if we don't turn the gas off. We prefer the reliability of the stove-top model and have used it daily for years now. 

So the electric percolators wind up on display. Or in the appliance cupboards. We have a couple of very fancy ceramic electric percolators from the '20s or '30s that we keep out on tables to see and admire, and several chrome ones from the '30s that are on high shelves to collect dust (we don't get up to them to dust very often...😋) There's even a nearly new stainless steel electric percolator we don't use because the coffee it made was almost undrinkable -- some off-flavor seemed to be baked into the stainless steel and could not be removed. 

We also have a pair of Silex glass vacuum coffee makers we sometimes use. They came with a dual electric hotplate -- one to perc, one to keep the pot warm -- and it's a convenience when we need to have a continuous supply of coffee. Then there are the French presses (I think we have two or maybe three), and the Italian moka pots (two or three of those, too) that we rarely get out and use. But the options are there!

We also have a Wearever aluminum stove-top percolator that we've used a couple of times and stopped using once we got the Revere Ware one. 

Note: no espresso machine, no Mr. Coffee or one of its clones.

When I was growing up, we never had coffee in the house. My mother said the smell of it made her sick. So for me, coffee was an acquired taste. I learned to like diner coffee -- sometimes very weak, sometimes very strong -- at first with lots of cream and sugar, then over time I came to prefer it black. I never really understood the ritual appeal of Starbucks and such, and I don't like their coffee. But some folks do, and that's fine with me. I'm not a fan of flavored coffees, but we have a bag of "chocolate-pinon" coffee beans in the freezer, just in case I get the hankering...) Mostly we just drink standard grocery store brand ground coffee made fresh in the morning in a Revere Ware 8 cup stove top percolator. 

Simple old things. That's the ticket.

-------------------------------

A contrasting view of morning coffee that gives me the willies:

https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2021/11/28/2065056/-How-a-26-coffee-maker-made-me-better-appreciate-the-world-and-the-people-who-make-things-work

Friday, November 26, 2021

And Another Thing: The Migration Crisis

Well, we're told that's a Crisis... again. It's come around again after fading a bit during the pandemic's worst days -- which we're supposedly actually still living through despite vaccines and such. But we're told people are on the move, all over Europe and forgathering in Latin America for more "caravans" to the USofA.

And I've pondered some of this in the context of my own migration to New Mexico from California, as well as in the context of my German, Irish, and English ancestors. What impelled them and what impelled Ms Ché and me on our journeys? 

Simply: why?

Though I was told no stories of it growing up, the Irish Famine was clearly a factor and probably the main one in my Irish ancestors' decision to emigrate to the United States. The whole family left at once in 1849, all except my great-grandfather who stayed behind for some reason while his parents and five of his siblings took ship to -- surprisingly -- New Orleans and then made their way upriver to Ohio where a relation had been since 1835 or so.

My great-grandfather doesn't show up in the US records until 1856 when the family and their relations had moved to Iowa -- with no clear indication of when he arrived. Part of what struck me about this is that the most of them arrived during the California Gold Rush, but they didn't go to California, though it would later become the home to all their descendants (none are left in Iowa) including my own self.

So far as I know, none of my Irish ancestors' descendants are left in Ireland. Or if they are, they aren't in County Offaly or Tipperary where my Irish roots were planted. 

I can understand the Famine impelling them to leave Ireland. But why would they not go to California right away? Clearly it was a longed for dream destination. But it's a question I can't answer. 

They went to the United States because they could; there were no restrictions on emigration from Europe at the time. They encountered sometimes extreme levels of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic discrimination once they got here, but that wasn't the same as prohibition from entry. I'm pretty sure they were driven out of Ohio by the Know-Nothings back in the day. But they put a brave face on it ("There were better opportunities on the Iowa frontier") and made a success of farming and later the law.

As for the German side of my ancestry, I'm not at all sure. I know very little about them. My German great-grandfather left his little town in Baden-Wurttemburg when he was 14 -- 1854 -- after two of his brothers had already left. He arrived in New York when he was 15 (taking almost a year from the time he left home till the day he arrived in NYC.) He apprenticed to a bookbinder in Brooklyn until 1863 when he moved to Iowa, got married to another German immigrant and lived among his brothers there. He took work as a carpenter on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, a job he held till he died in 1901.

One thing I discovered was that there were still people with my great-grandfather's last name in that little town in Germany, so it's likely the whole family didn't emigrate to America the way my Irish ancestors did. What I found was that my great-grandfather, his parents, and two of his brothers all emigrated at various times from 1852 to 1856 or '57, but other relations stayed behind and their descendants are still there. Why the ones who left did so, I don't know. The situation in Southern Germany was unsettled to say the least after the Revolutions of 1848, but how that affected my ancestors and whether it was a motivation for them to leave I don't know. 

Unsettled or deadly conditions at home and the opportunity to emigrate to somewhere else appear to have been the motivations for my ancestors to leave their homes in Europe. It wasn't adventure and conquest -- such as it was for many British emigrants during the Colonial era. 

I've been able to trace my mother's British ancestors to arrivals in New Jersey in the 1640s. That was a surprise. There was no hint from her that she had ancestors that were practically on the Mayflower -- and in fact, if some of the stories I've found being told are true, she may well have other ancestors who were on the Mayflower. The impelling cause of their emigration from England is not entirely mysterious. Religious animosity and civil war seem to be obvious. Together with opportunity to live somewhere else, why not leave?

But the opportunity to emigrate in the 1620s and 1640s was risky to say the least, and if one survived, it was the opportunity to live rough. Colonists until the late 1600s and well into the 1700s were largely a miserable lot. Most lived rough on a frontier where the Natives were no longer inclined to welcome them.

So why would my ancestors take that kind of risk and endure such discomfort?

I didn't know anything about them until did all that research in the Ancestry archives.

And that gets us to current events and the masses of migrants all over the world, many impelled by wars and social disruption as well as the acceleration of climate change. 

Many seem to see no other choice but to take the risk and endure the discomfort -- and if it comes to it, lose their lives in the attempt.

Dreadful. But it's happened before, and it's happening now. 

When my ancestors went abroad to America migration was celebrated in song and story. Not so with current migrants whose suffering and deaths are a "tragedy" -- but apparently unavoidable. There is no welcome for them. Anywhere. 

Like the Jews trying to escape Pharaoh or the Nazis. Nope. Can't come here! 

For the millions on the move today, there is no welcome anywhere. 

Still they come, still they try, still they long for succor. 

And some, a very few, will succeed.

As for our own migrations to California and from California to New Mexico, that's another story I think I'll leave for another time.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Brief Note On Current Events

There's much dooming and glooming about the current political and economic landscape for a variety of reasons. Inflation, congressional gridlock among them.

Well, I tend not to panic over any individual circumstance or event, but I've begun to wonder.

I live out in the country, right? Miles from anything. We don't have home mail delivery, have to go to the post office to pick up mail. Electricity and natural gas service is available but costly. In fact, the gas association has raised our monthly bill by 80% because they anticipate their costs for gas going up that much. They'll make an adjustment up or down next June. Meanwhile we pay.

Gasoline prices went up from just under $2.00 a gallon all last year to almost $3.50 for a while, then inched back down. Yesterday, I think the posted price was $3.25, and in town it's down to about $3.00. 

Food prices have increased a lot at our local-ish grocery store, up 30% last year on average, and another 25% this year. Some shelves have been bare since the start of the pandemic. Supplies don't arrive. When they do, they are less than ordered. 

The local-ish Walmart in the next town over burned a couple of weeks ago (suspected arson) and there is no date certain for reopening. There is a kind of panic over it because their pharmacy is closed, and patients have few options. The pharmacy closest to us closed just before the fire at Walmart and my prescriptions were transferred to a supermarket pharmacy I've never used. So were a lot of the Walmart pharmacy's prescriptions. I've heard that service is terrible to say the least. This is literally thousands of patients added all at once.

In fact, Walmart had become a kind of regional supply depot, and without it, the surviving local businesses are strapped. They don't have the personnel or supplies to meet the local demand, and for some things you will have to go into Albuquerque -- which is quite a distance if you're shopping.

I wish I could say online ordering is reliable. It's not. If you need something and you order it online, be prepared to wait, weeks in many cases, or be prepared to be told it's not available -- after you order.

It's a crapshoot.

People aren't panicking yet, but there is a lot of tension. Out here we're used to making do and doing without, so the tension isn't as high as it might otherwise be (except among some of the elderly who are very worried about getting their prescriptions.) But I went into town (Albuquerque) to try to stock up on cat food (a precious commodity and sometimes hard to get out here) and tensions were high. Of course it's holiday season, and that's always tough for many people, but this seemed tougher than usual. 

I see that some of the media is deliberately ginning up the tension, too. They're running false stories about inflation, for example, saying that prices for essentials have more than doubled in the past year, gas prices are through the roof, so on and so forth. It's not true, but people feel like it is, partly because that's what they hear on the "news" and partly because they are paying more. Shortages are flogged constantly, but from our perspective out here nothing really essential is in short supply. What is in short supply we've been doing without for a long time and probably don't need.

But... this is "ratcheting." Things are getting harder and harder to get, and prices are going higher and higher. The pandemic is not abating but is coming in wave after wave. Illness and deaths continue to mount, and as medical care and medications are harder to get, people are "falling through the cracks."

I've speculated that the death toll as a consequence of the pandemic -- both from Covid and from neglect of other illnesses -- has easily topped 1,000,000 in this country, god knows how many world-wide. 

Personnel to work in various low-paid and poorly paid positions are scarce. Employers have resisted raising wages, but they have no choice if they plan to continue operating. Some of course won't.

Thee paradigm is still shifting but we're entering uncharted social, political and economic territory. 

Meanwhile, authoritarians of all stripes are marshaling their forces.






Wednesday, November 24, 2021

"Looking Out At the Ocean" -- c. 1938

Interesting. 

Since returning from California last month, I've spent a surprising amount of time in reverie of the coastal sojourn, particularly the time we spent (it was only part of one day) in Monterey, Pacific Grove, Carmel and Big Sur. 

When I was a kid I liked going to the ocean (usually at Pismo Beach) but then when I thought about it, I really didn't like it at all. When I was a kid, the beach was always 1) crowded; 2) cold; 3) windy; 4) foggy. It was fun... but. And then on those few times when the sun came out, I got a terrible sunburn because I'm a red-head, no melanin to speak of, no possibility of a tan. So any joy connected with going to the beach was countered by the hazards -- at least the hazards for me.

Yet this time, the hours my friend and I spent at the Pacific Ocean -- at Pacific Grove, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the beach at Carmel-by-the-Sea, and along Highway 1 at Big Sur, including a stop for a late lunch at Nepenthe -- were as the saying goes Amazing.

In my reveries, I go back to one or another stopping place along the way, one or another vision of the ocean which in many places was sparkling aquamarine blue rather than the dusky green it usually is, one or another high place overlook, and it's both comforting and magical. So many times I'd been to the beach previously, but nothing was like this. 

And one day, I was cruising real estate listings for Pacific Grove (a place I particularly liked, given Ms Ché's and my long history of adventures in Monterey -- going back to Monterey Pop, 1967) and I happened across this:


(Note, the video is 14.5 minutes long, and I recommend muting the narration and just taking in the house and guest houses and the views au naturel as it were.)

The point is made that this place was featured on the cover of the July 1938 issue of Sunset Magazine, and it hasn't changed much since then. In another video, the real estate agent says that the property was subdivided from the Post Ranch of long ago, and this was one of the first retreats built in The Coastlands which has become a popular summer and winter retreat for the very well off.

I don't watch the video as a real estate listing, because of course, I couldn't afford to buy something like this. No, I watch it as a historical tour, something that really appeals to me. I wasn't around in 1938, but this is the kind of place along the coast I was aware of certainly and probably spent some time in when I was (much) younger, and it was the kind of place that hippies and pre-hippies liked to snap up if they could get their hands on them. 

Obviously, from the video and from the listing photos this place has been stayed at, lived in and well-loved for many years. It's a little run down, a little jammed with stuff, a little homey and a lot real. This is quite different than the newer places that dot the coast, the architect's dreams, perhaps the nightmares of the owners and residents. Some of them, I guess, are nice enough, but I wouldn't want to live in them. 

This one, I most certainly would move right into and feel right at home, though it would probably take me a couple of weeks or more to figure out where everything was and check out all the nooks and the crannies and the many vistas on the 2.5 acre site. The newer guest house is pleasant enough, but I would want to spend my time at the original "cabin" that still feels like 1938.

The listing says the "cabin" is 2 bedrooms and 2 baths, but you don't see that in the video. One of the original guest houses has two bedrooms as well. The newer guest house, though, only has one bedroom, a very large one, with extraordinary views of the ocean.

This location is very high above the Pacific, so you can't exactly walk to the beach, but one of the things I like about it is that you don't feel impelled to walk in the sand by the roiling surf. It's not all that far away, but it's a journey to get to the water, one that I could easily see taking in a 1941 Buick convertible if I had one. 

No, this is a place I can see myself just hanging out, vegging, reading, meditating, watching, enjoying, having friends over as well as being alone, fussing with the plants and imbibing the oceanic ozone. 

I think I'd never want to leave. 

The cabin and original guest houses sold for $3.2 million; the newer guest house sold separately for about $3 million. I don't know what has become of the property since the sale, but I sincerely hope the 1938 portion has been preserved pretty much intact. It's not for everyone, of course, and people with that kind of money tend not to be particularly respectful of the past. The cabin was obviously old and needed maintenance, but I can imagine someone with lots of money and not much sense buying it as a teardown and building something super deluxe and modern. If it happened it would be very sad.

There's an unwritten story of these historic coastal properties in California, what they were like, how they came to be -- and certainly the story of what's become of them is mostly untold. Many are gone as if they never were. The few that have been preserved, like this one until its sale, seem to be from another world, not just another time. 

While I have plenty of mixed memories of being at the ocean during my life, I would happily spend my remaining days looking out at the ocean from this place 🤩



Sunday, November 21, 2021

"Living Poor With Style"

(Note: I've been working on this post for some time now. Let's see if I can finish it! 🤪)


I recently got out my ancient copy of "Living Poor With Style" (1972) by Ernest Callenbach and I was shocked to realize how strongly this book and the ideas in it influenced my life, and how strongly it still does all these many years later.

Re-reading it, I'm also intrigued at how much and how little has changed since publication. The United States is still a cancer on the Earth, sucking up and squandering resources to no discernible object, devastating people and societies at will, enforcing consumerism on a largely pliant population, and pretending to hold the moral high ground while Americans still have no universal health care -- among so many other deficiencies. Yet in 1972, it was possible to live reasonably well off the fat of the land if you knew how and were willing to take the risk of failing. 

Now? I'm not so sure that one can live well. One can survive, perhaps. Though it is getting harder and harder. Much of what Callenbach suggests a poor person can do to live better is as useful today as it was 50 years ago -- and more -- but many of the public support programs he advises taking advantage of either don't exist any more or have been so transformed and bureaucratized that they might as well not exist for the vast majority of people. 

In 1972 it was possible to live poor and reasonably well if you were clever, skilled, and adaptable. In 2022? Maybe not. 

The ideas Callenbach presents, however, have formed the foundation for many movements we see today, from ecology to minimalism. 

The title of his book changed through many reprints and revisions from "Living Poor..." to "Living Cheaply..." in part, I think, because of the negative connotations of "poor" among his largely white middle class readers. Even in the early edition I have (it's like the third printing of the original 1972 Bantam edition), he acknowledges that the offspring of white middle class families are the primary drivers of the search for "alternative lifestyles," and living poor or living cheaply is one of them or is actually a constellation of them.

You don't need so much stuff, for one thing. Let go of it. You don't have to eat out, you don't have to have a car (if you're in the city), you don't need a lot of living space. You can do without a lot of what you've been conditioned to believe you must have for a happy life. You can disconnect from all of that and still live well -- though your friends and family may think you're crazy, especially if they're still immersed in consumerism. 

The one thing I'd say about his approach is that though he calls on community, he's addressing individuals. This is what you, personally, can do to live well without a lot of things and money. 

I look around and realize that, yes, I've lived very much that way for most of my life and am doing so now. The only caveat is that we have a LOT of things, most of them accumulated and not disposed of over a lifetime (or several lifetimes as our things include many of the things of others who have passed on.) Some would consider us hoarders because we've kept so much stuff over the years. I brought the final bits of stuff we'd been keeping in California out here to New Mexico last month, and we're slowly sorting through it, disposing of some but keeping much. Keeping for what, though?

Most of what we have is old. Older than us. Our house is over 100 years old, and much of the stuff in it is nearly as old or older. Many things we've had for decades. But much of it was old when we got it. What's newish is almost entirely a few appliances, electronics, minimal clothes -- and some books and art. 

We have a 14 year old Subaru that we bought used and a 25 year old Chevy van also bought used. They're "new" in our view. We don't drive nearly as much as we used to, and the van really is superfluous, but we keep it and I sometimes drive it. It's a convenience in a pinch, for example when the car is in the shop or when we need to transport something large/bulky that won't fit in the car.

I've bought some tools/equipment necessary or helpful to growing things and taking care of our little patch of ground. But I also do without. For example, we don't have a wheelbarrow. Seems strange, but I make do with a wheeled garbage can that serves the purpose just as well if not better.

Many other examples of making do could be given, but the point is that much of what needs to be done can be done without things you simply have to have in order to do them. And very often, things that can't be done without this or that tool or equipment don't really need to be done.

"Living poor..." is a lifestyle of survival if you will. Callenbach was adept at it, but he didn't need to live poor because he lacked money or any other benefit of and upper middle class white male life during his lifetime. He wasn't forced into and kept in poverty the way so many Americans have been. He recognized the truth of their plight even in the early '70s, though, and in seeing that truth, he offered what he could of solutions; advice and ideas he thought would be helpful.

At least for me, and I suspect many others, they were. 

Whether poor people today need or want them, I can't say. Much of the practical advice he gives is second nature to someone who's been living poor for a while. A good deal of it no longer applies because of cultural, social and economic changes since the '70s. And the number of abjectly poor people living unhoused on the streets has grown exponentially. His advice won't and can't help most of them, because "Living poor..." in the Callenbach style requires shelter and access to so much of what someone on the streets doesn't have.

We've seen one failed attempt after another to rectify forced impoverishment over the decades; "nothing seems to help" for long or in many cases, at all. In my view, most of these activities aren't meant to seriously address the problem. They are meant as job creation for surplus sons and daughters of the higher classes. They cannot solve a problem they seek to perpetuate to ensure their own well-being. This is not unlike the situation of the monasteries of yore. Yes, some did good works, but that wasn't the point of them. 

Meanwhile, I can and do recommend Living Poor With Style  (if you can find the original publication not one of the later revisions) as a window on the history of poverty in this country. It's not a complete picture by any means, but it serves to illuminate what people could and did do to alleviate poverty themselves. It became something of a guidebook for disgruntled middle class folks who sought to simplify their lives by "living poor" without necessarily being poor (which I suspect was Callenbach's own position.) And it proved inspirational to any number of alternative lifestyle and ecological/utopian ideals we see in operation today.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

"When Tomorrow Comes..."

I have a modest collection of books, magazines and pamphlets published during and in the aftermath of WWII. I think they are better windows into US society as it was back then than most of the movies that were made during and immediately after the War. 

To hear lots of us gabbing these days or to see and read the posts on social media, you'd think we are living in the Worst of Times and Doom is on the perpetual horizon, but you'd be wrong.

The thing that is most striking to me about the material from the War years and immediately after was the overall positivity and futurism it featured. Yes, things were bad, life was tough, conditions were harsh, and yet... "When Tomorrow comes..." ran many refrains, so much of what people were suffering through during the War and prior to it during the Great Depression would be gone, poof, as if it never was. "When Tomorrow comes..." Life would be better -- for everyone. Friends and current enemies alike. We knew how to fix things so that the world would not descend into this kind of madness again -- and the War was definitely considered madness, something deranged and unnatural, but something that had to be done and had to be won, and we (the Allies -- aka United Nations) would do it come hell or high water or both at once. 

We might be sacrificing now, but it was for the right reasons, and the hardship Americans were experiencing was light, nothing compared to the Brits, the French, the Belgians, or bless them, the Soviets. The US might be rationing meat and butter, but at least there was meat and butter. Tires and new cars might be unavailable, but there were still rattle trap jalopys to be had, and if you were handy with tools and didn't drive very much (which you couldn't do anyway due to gas rationing) you could keep it running indefinitely. Same with your newer car if you had one. If you got a blow out, you fixed it. If your tires were bald, you were careful. Etc.

People lived rough in many cases, families confined to tiny trailers, tarpaper barracks or shacks, rooming houses that once were mansions, or doubled-tripled-quadrupled up in city apartments in buildings that were falling apart and for which there was practically no maintenance available due to lack of materials and supplies.

People made do.

Jobs were plentiful, there was that, and everyone who could was either working or in the military. One thing you couldn't help but notice is that private companies -- many of them the same multinationals of today - - were the bulwark of the War effort. They manufactured and supplied everything to the military and the civilian markets. And they were fiercely regulated by government. 

At the time, people made jokes about some of the regulations -- they seemed absurd or were impossible to meet -- but they appreciated that tight leashes were kept on the corporate overlords of the day.

Those leashes have been loosened to such an extent that there is no longer any but the most tenuous "public interest" -- only corporate interest, and particularly finance interest,  in the current political economy. 

And there is no futurism or even any concept of a Future to dream of and aim for and realize.

"When tomorrow comes...?"

What if there is no tomorrow?



Thursday, November 11, 2021

The 90 Year Old Toaster

Many years ago now, I wrote a piece on what was then a 75 year old Toastmaster toaster that I'd rescued from the Goodwill discard bin and fixed up to use every day. It's by far the best toaster of the half-dozen or so we have these days. It was in storage in California for the past 9 years since we moved to New Mexico and it was one of the odds and ends that we had delivered here when we cleaned out the storage unit on what was probably my last trip to California last month.

And we've been using it to make toast pretty much every day since it arrived here.


It's a remarkable yet simple machine that in its day was very expensive. It's heavy -- certainly heavy compared to any toaster on the home market today. The cord is fabric wrapped and very sturdy, but when I picked the toaster out of the Goodwill bin the plug had been cut off and I had to find and attach a new one. It works fine now.

This toaster seems to work a little differently than more recent ones, and truth to tell, it makes better toast. Here's how I think this toasting miracle is accomplished:

The bread goes in the slots like any other toaster, but you have to push hard on the black lever there to make it go down, wind up the clock work and start the electric heating elements. The heating elements are encased in mica rather than being exposed, and they start to heat slowly rather than all at once. During the toasting cycle, the clockwork ticks cheerfully, and the lever slowly rises as time passes, but the toast stays in place till the end of the cycle. As the timer counts down, the heating elements get hotter and redder, till at the end of the cycle, they are cherry red and then the toast pops up done perfectly.

This perfection is, I think, accomplished by heating the bread before toasting it, and only toasting the outside of each slice at the very end of the cycle rather than toasting the bread through and through during the whole cycle -- which can dry out the bread and make it crispier and harder than ideal.

At least that's my theory of what's happening.

All I can say further is that the toast we make -- again -- in this toaster is good. Better than the toast from any other toaster we have or have ever had.

And it's nearly 90 years old.

Think about that for a moment or two.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Attachments

On the last day of our Fall Practice Period. I became very much attuned to the ideas of Attachment that pervade the study and practice of Buddhism, that are a big part of the Vimalakirti Sutra, and that shape the Ox Through the Window Koan I was given at my first practice interview of this period. 

Oh yes, it's all about Attachment and how and why we put off Enlightenment. Buddha made many comments about Attachments, Desires, Suffering, and Enlightenment, and Buddhist practitioners are supposed to be training to let go of all that, somehow, some way, and in the Mahayana Zen tradition, become Lights Unto the World, vowing to free all sentient beings from their traps of Suffering, Futility and Attachments.

Right now, of course, I'm attached to those ideas, to the thought processes of contemplation and meditation on Attachments, and there will be no Enlightenment while that process goes on. But that's OK. 

In fact, the more I consider Attachments, the more I realize that :letting go: of Attachments is not something I need to strive for; Attachments. like Desires, are Life (as one of my Zen teachers puts it), you need neither to let go of them nor hold on to them. The useful thing is to notice and acknowledge them.

For example, yes, I am attached to my home, my wife, and many of our cats. I'm attached to my chair, my laptop, my smart-ish phone, my car, my van. I can go on and on and on, listing attachments, and as I go through the day, I notice and acknowledge attachments to various things, people, places, thoughts and ideas, memories and dreams.

They are all part of my life; some are not healthy, others are necessary for right -- or any -- living.

We don't have to judge them, but just notice them, recognize them, acknowledge them. Yes, I am attached to this action of journalizing parts of my days, my thoughts, opinions, joys and disappointments. 

Attachments fall away. They come and they go, much like thoughts and emotions during zazen. The trick is to let them. Let them come; let them go. For most of us, an attachment doesn't last forever or even for  a particularly long time. We may be engaged with our attachments for only a moment or two, or for months or years, or in a few cases for a lifetime. But, like ourselves, attachments are impermanent, transitory, and something like the clouds of the sky. There and then not, growing, diminishing, vanishing, or suddenly re-appearing.

A cloud is real but evanescent. 

Just so with attachments.

And if we can acknowledge them as they arise, greet them even with a bow, then we might be on our way to liberation from hold over us.

Buddhism in essence is very simple. The commentaries on the Sutras are far longer and more complicated than the Sutras themselves in part, I think, because the teachings are almost too simple and direct for many individuals to grasp. A Truth so simple must be bogus, right?

The basics are that we live in the World of Perception -- which is in fact an illusion, in some aspects a delusion. This World of Perception-Illusion doesn't have any corporeal existence. There is ultimately nothing there, that is to say nothing we can perceive. 

This Great Nothingness or Void is the ground state of being. Everything that "is" -- including ourselves -- arises from it, and thus, everything that "is" is ultimately the same thing. Our perception of separateness is an illusion. We can't shake that illusion, and in reality, we don't have to. A better approach is to accept the alternative and apparently actual reality along with the illusion. To understand they are intertwined and cannot be separated, don't need to be separated, and by accepting both, simultaneously, one approaches the nonduality that is the energy of Buddhist thought and practice. 

In essence, this is the process the Buddha went through during his years of fasting, contemplation, meditation, study and struggle to grasp what's really going on. 

And then he shared it with his disciples who then shared it with the rest of us and whose descendants do so today.

"The Dharma is vast and subtle..." Well, yeah, but it is also very simple. 

Vimalakirti's insight -- which he shared with gods and goddesses, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, monks and laypeople, anyone who would listen -- was that having grasped this subtle simplicity, a whole new universe, indeed an inter-nested series of Universes -- opens up within us. What we can perceive is just a tiny, tiny, infinitesimal corner of the "vast and subtle", inconceivable and incomprehensible reality/unreality that we are part of. Our languages can't adequately express it. We just have to accept it. 

The commentary that came with my version of Vimalakirti's Teaching Sutra (211 page pdf) by a well-known rinpoche is longer than the sutra itself and is centered on how stupid the commentator is and how little he understands the arguments and dialogues of the various gods, goddesses, and so on, with Vimalakirti. 

Well, OK.

He describes the appearance of things as they are presented in the sutra and then states his utter ignorance and inability to grasp any meaning from it.

The Teachings are so far beyond him.

OK. 

No, from my perspective, it's not that hard. It really isn't. And Attachment in the broadest sense is what can prevent an individual -- even a rinpoche -- from grasping the teaching of the Dharma in this (or any) sutra.

We may be attached to our ignorance, for example, or to the appearance of our ignorance, and if we acknowledge and even respect that attachment, it can begin to lose its power over us. It doesn't mean it goes away -- it may be an integral part of our identity in the material world, after all! -- but our attachment to our ignorance, say, doesn't have to be in control.

Much of what Vimalakirti is teaching is to help us (even gods and goddesses) to "let go." Not to deny but to acknowledge and recognize and then to let go of what came to be called our "hang ups." Don't fret over them. 

Don't try to get rid of them. Don't judge them. Don't fear them, but don't yield to them, either. There are myriad Universes beyond our perceptions. We are less than motes of dust in that context. Even as gods and goddesses.

And that's all right.

At the beginning of this practice period, the Dharma teacher said to me, "Desire is Life." It threw me for a loop because I had long operated on the idea (from the Buddha) that Desire or Attachment to Desire was the source of suffering, which ideally we want to end -- for ourselves and all sentient beings. Right?

Right?

In some sense, maybe. But that's what the Buddha teaches; it is the core of his teaching! 

And?

Without Life in the World of Perception, you don't and can't experience suffering nor can you do anything to end suffering for yourself or anyone else. Letting go of our Attachment to Desire and Suffering doesn't end them so long as we are alive, but it does let us see them more clearly and it can end their control over our lives. 

Once we are free of that control, we can begin to help others free themselves, though we are still experiencing Desires and the Suffering they cause. 

And that is the Dharma of Vimalakirti's teaching as I see it. 


 





Friday, October 22, 2021

Living On the Surplus and Study

Part of my study during this practice period and sesshin has been about renewing acquaintance with the people and places that were important during the early period of my introduction to and practice of Zen Buddhism. Not just important to me but important to the Zen movie (as I call it) that was then being made and shown.

This was pre-Counterculture. 1964-1965 ish. Zen came to America earlier of course (c. 1958-59), but it only seemed to be beginning to blossom when I encountered it and got in contact with the Zen Center in San Francisco. I would see it that way because that was when I myself was "beginning to blossom" as a rebellious teenager. Zen practice was part of my rebellion. I think that was true of many Anglo early adopters. Not so much for the Japanese American Zen practitioners at the Sokoji, though. It wasn't rebellion for them. Or was it? 

I have to give great credit to David Chadwick* among others for preserving so much of the Early Days literature, photos, film clips and reminiscences. People who were there then are dying off quickly, probably many more lost than would have been otherwise due to the Covid pandemic. It's a shame, but much has been preserved, and I could spend the rest of my life poring through it. 

It's not just David's stuff, either. The San Francisco Zen Center has preserved extensive archives; Suzuki Roshi's archives at Shunryosuzuki.com is another source. I'm sure there is much more to explore.

*Links to other sites David maintains or recommends are available at the first linked site. 

So much more to explore. And one of the insights I had about it was that all of us -- well, most of us -- were living on the surplus of the post-War (WWII) era. This was one key to the what the Counterculture would become. '64-'65 is pre-Hippie, just barely, but following the assassination of President Kennedy, young people's lives began radicalizing almost immediately. By 1965, many -- particularly on the West Coast -- had effectively separated themselves from whatever had gone before, their parents' lives, the experience and expectations of the post-War suburban life, etc., and were exploring alternatives. 

Zen was (and still is) an alternative.

A certain kind of young Anglo adopted it, tried to adapt to it. Zen wasn't for everyone. It still isn't.

Suzuki Roshi gently tried to guide the newcomers into the practice through his adaptations of Japanese Zen practice as it had been when he was trained (pre-WWII).

I say gently because he was very gentle with his Anglo charges who were attempting to practice a very strict Japanese discipline. 

So gentle that by the time Richard Baker took over after Suzuki Roshi's death in 1971, only the outward, visible forms of Japanese Zen remained; the inner practice had become something else, for different purposes I think.

Because it wasn't what I had been introduced to -- and what I had studied hard to start to master the practice -- I stayed well away from Richard Baker's Zen Center in San Francisco and whatever they were promoting. 

It wasn't "Zen." They called it Zen but it wasn't.

It had become Baker's vision of grandeur. I hate to say it, but that's what I saw. 

But maybe that grandeur was part of Suzuki Roshi's vision as well. Maybe that's what I'm trying to find out with all this study.

It's possibly useful to see the origins of Zen in America as a pre-Counterculture "living on the surplus" alternative -- ie: pointing the way for what was to come.

Sokoji, for example, was housed in a former Jewish temple, Tassajara was a former "carriage trade" resort, the City Center was a former Jewish women's center and residence. All these locations and many more were surplus, they weren't needed by their original users anymore and they could be reused for alternative purposes -- such as Zen. The alternative lifestyles that came out of the Counterculture were almost all based in the fact that there was a big surplus of practically everything needed for living from which to create and sustain alternative (at least for a while.)

Many of the branches that would arise from the SFZC began in well-off people's homes, unused commercial or religious sites, and other private but surplus locations. None have become what primary Zen sites are in Japan. They all still have this temporary, ad hoc, reused location sensibility about them.

Sometimes it's charming. No doubt about that. 

There's also a sense that none of it is really here, either.

Zen is still trying to plant roots in America.

As opposed to, say, Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village in France. Which seems to be about as permanent and rooted as something Zen can be outside of Japan (and, well, Vietnam...)

I think my study will continue for as long as I can keep it up, and the two practice periods I've been part of this year have renewed my sense of Zen as it was and as it is now (something else again.)

So many elderly women participants... I've been thinking about that. 

How different that is from times gone by. But then, it's probably natural, too.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Not Much Zazen - So Many Things To Do, You Know.

Yes, well.

This sesshin, well, the whole practice period so far, has been one thing after another, obligations piled upon actions and distractions, travel and preparations. Not much time to sit, just sit. Every now and then, sitting seems like the natural thing to do, though, so I sit, and when the time to sit is over, I go about my other activities. 

In between, I've done a lot of study and recollection of times gone by, when all of this Zen shit was new -- or new to me -- and neither the world nor I had quite figured out what it was all about. Hoshi and sensei have given me challenges and questions to ponder, koans to delve into if not answer and the daily Dharma talk confirms or questions my assumptions and beliefs.

Tuesday's Dharma talk was filled with quotes from Suzuki Roshi's Dharma talks in 1969. That was important to me as a look back to the Old Days when this Zen shit was all still very new, and Suzuki Roshi was still in the process of introducing it to the American consciousness, such as it was.

Suzuki Roshi recognized the suchness of the conditions and situations he put himself into or he fell into, and he made the most of it. Nothing seemed beyond his ability to see through or penetrate to reach the essence.   Of course there were many things I did not know and didn't need to know about his life and struggles and disappointments. One thing I can say, however, is that he always seemed to find the humor in everything, and he always seemed to be laughing inwardly or outwardly, never seemed to take himself or anything else too seriously.

Even when he was dying.

He cautioned others not to take things that seriously, either. We're impermanent, everything is impermanent. The moment will pass. All we have is the moment -- this very moment. Live it fully. 

Sometimes when I hear that from some of the contemporary Zen practitioners, I doubt they believe it. They know the words, but do they, can they follow? 

Not to go all Ram Dass on us, but Being Here Now is all we've really got, so why not be -- and let be?

Suzuki Roshi embraced it without reservation. Nowadays, for many, that's very hard.

Now while I haven't sat zazen on a strict schedule or for long periods the way we're supposed to during practice period and sesshin, I have daily engaged in samu (work practice) sometimes for many hours at a time, and samu is practice as much or more so than zazen. 

A practice period consisting mostly of samu is interesting. In the regular schedule, samu comes once or twice a day. Sitting is the primary practice. Hearing/studying Dharma secondary. Samu breaks up the day. 

But for me, it's been samu, Dharma, and sits. 

No less engaging. 

I wonder what Suzuki Roshi would say.

"Good, good (laughs), but it's not zen, you know. (Laughs.)"



Wednesday, October 20, 2021

How Very Alone He Seemed

Yesterday's Dharma talk included a number of quotes from Suzuki Roshi's own Dharma talks in 1969 soon after Tassajara Zen Mountain Center came to be. 

A film was made by KQED in 1968, shortly after the establishment of the Zen Mountain Center monastery at Tassajara Hot Springs above Big Sur that shows Suzuki Roshi and Richard Baker at both Sokoji Temple in San Francisco and at Tassajara as well as various students and supporters talking about Zen in America. 

The film seems primitive by today's standards. It appears to have been shot on Super 8 film (both silent and sound) then transferred to 16mm and overdubbed. The camera work is sometimes shaky and out of focus, as amateur film making tended to be in those days. Yet there's an honesty about it that is both charming and fascinating to students like me whose contact with Suzuki Roshi and Richard Baker was physically slight (I'm still sure I never met either of them in person, and yet when I see them in this film or in other clips, I feel as if I must have met them at some point in my journey) but spiritually powerful.

And one thing I notice is that despite being with Richard Baker and Zen students and supporters throughout his sojourn in America, Suzuki Roshi seems always so very much alone. He's an exotic and he seems to know it. He's here to transmit the Dharma and Zen from Japan to the small-ish circle of adherents he was able to attract and keep interested in something new -- as Zen was still very new in the United States, even up to 1971 and Roshi's death from cancer.

He brought Zen from Japan but adapted it to the US and particularly to San Francisco as it was during the young people's cultural transition from the Beats to the Hippies. I don't want to say that Zen led the way, but maybe it did. What I notice though is that Suzuki Roshi wasn't concerned with that so much as he was with communicating the essence of Zen practice -- as he was trained for and knew it in Japan before, during and after WWII -- to a new audience and in forming a community to continue the practice indefinitely.

I've pointed out that I came to Zen when I was a teenager through the novels of Jack Kerouac and an innate curiosity about something I knew nothing of, the way of Japan and Buddhism. Just curious, that's all, and yet I found so many connections, superficial and very deep, between my being and those of Zen practitioners like Suzuki Roshi and Richard Baker -- without whom I would not "know" Zen today. (There's nothing to know, so I don't "know" Zen; it's merely a convenient figure of speech...)

Zen was never popular in Japan, and in an overall sense, it's not popular in the United States either. It's a "specialty practice," indeed, often an elite practice, something done by those who cannot find satisfaction of their spiritual interests and needs in other forms of Buddhism or religion. Or like me, it's practiced by those who fell into it at some point in their lives, early or late, learned to practice and never stopped. 

Suzuki Roshi was the catalyst and early teacher, called "Roshi" to his laughter, but in the Zen sense, a sensei. Teacher. 

There's something so simple and straightforward about his presentation, something you don't often see in today's Zen -- which seems to me to be something else, not the Zen Suzuki Roshi and a few others brought to the US from Japan. 

I can't say exactly what it is -- or was. I don't know. Zen-not-Zen-no-Zen.

Cognitive dissonance!

I do recommend Suzuki Roshi's early Dharma talks, and the collection of some of those talks in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Pretty much all of it is available online, easily accessible, and for me at any rate, compelling. 

How very alone he seemed. And yet at root, there is no distinction, separation, or "aloneness." 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Bodhisattvas Again

Zen liberates bodhisattvas into the world of presence. 

That's what I call it: "World of Presence", our ordinary, everyday perception of reality.

As we know, however, that's an illusion.

A dream as it were.

It doesn't have any ultimate existence.

But because it is our general, ordinary perception of reality, and we conduct our lives within it, the bodhisattva's presence is also called for and called forth.

The bodhisattva, on the path to Buddhahood, lingers in the World of Presence, the material world, to help guide other sentient beings to liberation and Buddhahood for themselves. The Bodhisattva vow is to liberate all sentient beings. 

Buddhahood is ultimate liberation from suffering (ie: living in the World of Presence) we are led to believe, and many of us do believe it, and yet some of the sutras says that Buddhahood is itself an illusion, a dream as it were, and there is no ultimate liberation from suffering because there is no suffering at the ultimate level of... well, what is it?

"It" is the wrong term. There is no "it."

If we actually probe to the limit of perception/existence, delve as deeply as possible into the material world, we find, perhaps to our surprise, that there is no there there. Nothing, in other words. What we regard as "something," or "anything" or "everything," is not there. There is "nothing" there -- emptiness, void. Absence of "thing."

That is the ground state we can perceive if we delve deeply enough, from which "thing" -- everything -- arises. Because it is a ground state we can perceive if we delve deeply enough, probe with our minds and with our tools, it too is an illusion, That is not the ultimate. But it is the ground from which, thorough which, everything else manifests.

We cannot probe any deeper with our minds or with our tools, but we know there is a deeper inconceivable "reality" underlying it. "It." But there is no "it."

Bodhisattvas are called forth to help with compassion those on the journey through the material world, perhaps toward Buddhahood, or perhaps not. It doesn't matter. A bodhisattva is a teacher and a guide and a helper. Bodhisattvas are everywhere: not only teachers, guides, and compassionate caregivers. We often don't recognize them or we take them for granted out of habits of mind that simply don't recognize much beyond our own selfish needs and desires. The gift of a bodhisattva can go unnoticed in the press of events and the furious activity of the moment. But they are there, all around us, right next to us, and yes, sometimes the bodhisattvas are we ourselves.

We may not recognize the bodhisattva in ourselves. 

Vimalakirti takes on all the gods, buddhas, bodhisattvas, monks and laypeople alike in his teaching we're studying in this Fall Practice Period. Though a layman himself, he doesn't hesitate to correct and instruct those around him, no matter their status, when he perceives them failing or flailing in their efforts to observe the proper forms of observance and devotion. 

In a sense, he tells them to throw it all away. None of it means anything. It accomplishes nothing. At best, observance is an empty gesture; at worst it's merely fraud.

Live your life. That is practice.

Other bodhisattvas, even the Buddha himself, say the same thing. Your life is your practice. Focus there, not outside yourself, not on some arcane ritual, not on sitting in meditation. 

None of it matters.

In Zen, sitting is a duty, but it's not a product, and it is not meant to produce anything. We don't sit for a purpose. We sit to sit. 

Sitting is and isn't a means, skillful or otherwise, toward some end other than sitting. It is a means because sitting can be like opening a window beyond our usual expectations or experience. It can be. It isn't always. 

It isn't a means because there is nothing ultimately beyond it. We sit to sit, no other purpose. But in sitting we can gain a more complete comprehension of ourselves. 

Our roshi got into a bit of hot water a while back by saying that we sit with intention, aspiration, and/or motivation. We don't. Later on, roshi corrected this notion by saying "we sit to sit." No other reason or aspiration in sitting. But our lives -- which include sitting! -- are motivated with intention and aspiration, in the Bodhisattva Way to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. 

We take vows as Zen practitioners, after all. Bodhisattva vows. 

And none of us is perfect. That's all right. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Second Sesshin of the Year

And second time I've participated in sesshin in my life. 

Starting the first day with Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi's Dharma talk on August 21, 1971 --  podcast or transcript.

----------------

Note: in sesshin, there are plenty many "don't do's" including "don't journal" like I'm doing now. As an inveterate rule breaker, I feel little guilt at not following the rule here, in part due to the liberation I was granted from monkish observance way back in the day. A whole list of "don't do's", page after page of them, was read off as part of the introduction to sesshin last night, and I'm sure it startled, even put off, some of the potential global participants. 

They can't do that at home; if we were in a monastery, maybe. 

I'll just quote something that Suzuki Roshi said in explanation of a quote from Dogen in that Dharma talk so long ago -- a few months before he died:

“When all things are Buddhism—all things are Buddhism, there are defilement, practice—defilement, practice, birth and death, buddhas and sentient beings.”  The point is they are—they are.  All things are Buddhism.  Whatever you do, that is Buddhism.  But there is some danger in your understanding of this kind of words—statement.  “Whatever you do, that is Buddhism.”  You know, whatever you do in Tassajara, or in city zendō, or in city life, that is Buddhism.  It looks like—it sound like this:  “Whatever we do, it doesn’t matter.  Anyway [laughs], that is a practice of Buddhism.”  If it is so, there is—it is not necessary for you to study Buddhism, whatever—if whatever you do, that is Buddhism.

But actually, what Dōgen-zenji meant is not—is not like that.  So there—there is, maybe, in—in—when you understand this statement, “Whatever you do, that is,” you know, “Buddhism.”  There may be two ways of understanding it.  One is, whatever you do [laughs], you know, if you understand—you take this statement literally, from your non-Buddhist—non-Buddhistic understanding.  That is one, you know.

1971, it was a different world, very different I think, and he's getting into the whole notion of Buddhist "liberation" and what it means in the modern world having seen how the idea was misinterpreted by some of his followers who took it to mean license. If everything is Buddhism and there is no judgement then "liberation" means you can do whatever you want, right? Whatever urge you may have at any given moment is OK because everything in every moment is Buddhism, right?

Well, yes it is, but it doesn't mean what you might think it means.

No, you have precepts: right thinking, right understanding, right behavior. And there are rules, many rules, that constrain the thoughts and actions of priests and monks and laypeople alike, though not all the rules apply equally to all practitioners. 

But in 1971, the precepts were not fully understood, nor were they fully observed by many (most?) Western devotees of Suzuki-Roshi. So he tries to make clear, and not for the first time, that "liberation" in a Buddhist concept is not license.

In my own case as a teenager in 1965 or even 1964 -- memory falters -- I wasn't and couldn't be in a monastic setting in San Francisco or later at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, so I was granted a kind of dispensation, you might say, to practice at home and adapt the Rules as was able to. I believe this dispensation was granted by Richard Baker, Suzuki Roshi's right hand and successor at San Francisco Zen Center, as a skillful means of introducing me to and keeping me following Zen practice no matter my situation. Over the years, I've found few Buddhist leaders who require strict observance of all Rules by all practitioners. But the Precepts form the basis of assessment of individuals. How closely do you follow them? What failures have you had? What lessons have you learned? So.

In addition to starting the day with Dharma talks by Suzuki Roshi, I also review the reminiscences of David Chadwick, an early adopter and current practitioner of Zen in America as brought and taught by Suzuki Roshi so very long ago. They are potent reminders of my early practice and of some of the people I never knew.

Then to round things out, there is the study and review of Vimalakirti's Teaching Sutra which I expect to return to many times.

Sitting zazen when I can and am moved to. 

And it's about time to start the Morning Sit. 






 

Saturday, October 16, 2021

"Why Are You All So Grim?"

A story is told of Tich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Master, visiting Green Gulch Farms in Marin County, California, sometime in the '80s during a period when the San Francisco Zen Center (of which Green Gulch like Tassajara was a part) was going through some very stressful times.

As he walked around the farm and walked the path of kinhin (walking meditation) used by the residents, visitors and monks, a path that led through forest and toward the sea, he is said to have said:

"You have one of the most beautiful kinhin pathways in North America. Why are you all so grim?"

And when I heard that from a long-time worker, student and teacher at Green Gulch, I had a sudden flash of enlightenment (satori) that yes, students of the Dharma, whether through Zen or some other way, are often, too often, far too grim -- at least appear to be.

We sometimes become attached to adversity and suffering. I witnessed it a few minutes ago when reviewing yesterday's Dharma talk by the Zen center's Roshi.  And when we are attached, we suffer and become grim, even in the presence of natural beauty such as that at Green Gulch. We are not, in other words, in the moment, experiencing and appreciating what is there and then. We are instead immersed in our misery or as we learn from the sutra of Vimalakiriti, in the delusion of our misery.

It's been interesting to see how Vimalakirti's teaching has been approached during this practice period. Many have said they never knew of it, never read it, never studied it, and some at least have not read it even now during the practice period. Of those who have, they seem somewhat off-put by it; it's not in the standard pattern of Buddhist sutras, in fact it's far outside the mainstream. It's in a word: radical.

It's a pageant, it's magical realism, it's a knock upside the head, not unlike the whap with the tomahawk I experienced in July from a stranger who invaded my home.

It's a "Hey!" 

Vimalakirti is saying "Hey!" to all the gods and goddesses, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, monks and laypeople alike that, "Hey! You're doing it wrong!" Why are you all so grim?

Vimalakirti has taken on the sickness of the world, as a bodhisattva would, and he is therefore physically "sick" -- ie: feigning sickness. But his realization and teaching is that "sickness" and "suffering" are illusions, delusions if you want, and attachment to them perpetuates them. Detach, liberate yourselves, and even if you are physically ill -- or the world is sick -- on the material plane, that is not, by any means, the ultimate reality. 

I've been reviewing some of Suzuki Roshi's teachings from back in the day. He tries over and over again to get this very point across. Ultimate reality is that there is no "reality"; it's all an illusion. Words fail, however, because our concepts are illusory themselves. The ground state -- what I call the ground state -- is inexpressible. It is neither there nor not there. Neither real nor unreal. It's beyond that. Beyond duality.

But saying so doesn't tell us much. You have to experience it, which Vimalakirti does... But having done so, the challenge is to communicate it. Ever the challenge. Communicate it to the gods and goddesses, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, monks and laypeople alike. 

Pfft. 

Well, he tries. And they all say they understand. But of course they lie.

Maybe the trick really is to just ask:

Why are you all so grim?


Friday, October 15, 2021

Thinking Back, Catching Up

Unheard Dharma talks are piling up, I have one chapter to go in the study text, and I'm scheduled for a practice interview with one of the Zen teachers this afternoon. The truth is, I haven't gotten back into the rhythm and discipline of a Zen practice period of sitting and study and meditation and contemplation and mindful effort. I thought it would come back really quickly after that whirlwind tour of the Other California, the one less seen or known. But no. It hasn't.

Part of what I've seen throughout my return to conscious Zen practice after a period away from it is a tendency of some practitioners to want to be perfect. They desire, nay demand, perfection of themselves certainly and sometimes from others. They seek and see perfection, for example, in their teachers; the elevated illuminated ones, the living bodhisattvas, enrobed and wise.

Well, no. I have a hard time doing that, though I think I am open enough to the idea of what might-could be. I saw for myself how a Dharma talk on the Diamond Sutra by one of the current teachers led me in due time to return to the rhythm and discipline of Zen practice, at least for a while. But when I asked him if would consider taking me on as a student, there was no answer, and I realized soon enough that no answer was an answer and it wasn't "no" nor was it "yes." It was silence to open my own consciousness to the fact that I've had teachers all my life and I still do. What is one more? Or one less? 

Also to open my consciousness to the fact that I am and have been a teacher for a very long time, and I am one now. We study the concept of bodhicitta and bodhisattvas, and we study how they are described in the sutras, and we study exemplars, and we aspire or desire to emulate them. But many of us in the program don't realize how close we may already be, nor necessarily do we see the same qualities in one another. We may see or seek them in our teachers, but in Zen it always circles back to we ourselves.

I think back to one of the earliest teachings I received from Suzuki Roshi when I was a snot-nosed rebellious teenager:

The Buddha is within you, the Dharma is you, the Sangha is with anyone you encounter who is on the Dharma Path.

Buddha-Dharma-Sangha are the Three Jewels of Buddhist practice. We are rarely fully conscious of this fundamental though. We seek the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha outside ourselves, and in truth, it's not there. We won't find it there because it is not there. 

The Dream I had of being in San Francisco after I had experienced The Void during zazen is a case in point. The teacher I told the story to called it a Dream, but that's what "Reality" is in a Buddhist context. Real-Not-Real. The cognitive dissonance of it all. And so forth. And what she saw in my story was basically the Living Truth: the Buddha is within, the Dharma is what is, the Sangha is with whomever, wherever, whenever.

I described how that could be in the past-present-always.

There's a series of podcasts by David Chadwick, an early adopter of the Zen brought by Suzuki Roshi from Japan and popularized by the San Francisco Zen Center at Tassajara and (interestingly) in Los Altos Gatos. Some of what he is describing of the Early Days is not at Sokoji Temple in San Francisco in other words. There was no there there. The there, wherever it was, was at the tips of the branches. At Tassajara, at Los Altos Gatos, Berkeley, Marin, wherever Suzuki Roshi and Richard Baker reached out. 

Chadwick -- DC as he calls himself -- recollects what it was like and some of the people who were there at the Beginning, or Not-Beginning. It was so very different. Well, it was a different world, wasn't it?

I can see why Richard Baker and Suzuki Roshi wanted out of the City, to spread out from the City, to put down permanent roots in the country. The Sokoji city temple was abandoned -- well, they were asked to leave -- shortly after the branches were established. Indeed, before some of them even had the dust covers removed. 

They were asked to leave by the Temple board because they appeared to be uninterested in serving the Japanese American community which provided the space and sought to practice. They were more interested in attracting and serving/being served by Anglos and the nascent (white, very white) counter culture of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Los Altos Gatos may have come before Tassajara, I'm not sure, probably not, but who knows? Time is not necessarily linear.

Anyway, during that time, I was a kid out in the Central Valley, a lone outpost of Zen in a place that San Franciscans still don't quite acknowledge as "real." They shudder to think. It hurts their delicate sensibilities. The Central Valley is a place to move through quickly if at all. An Empty Quarter. 

It's kind of like where I am now compared to the delicate sensibilities and sophistication of our Santa Fe friends. 

Well, San Francisco, Santa Fe, what's the difference? 

I can't say that Buddhism or Zen has ever been much of a struggle for me. It just seemed natural. Zen postures -- the strictness of them as described by Suzuki Roshi -- were difficult, and I can't do them now due to infirmity -- but... soon enough I learned that you don't have to strictly follow the "rules" and you can still practice zazen.

If you're a monk practicing at a temple then yes, perhaps, but most of us are not and don't aspire to be, so why make ourselves suffer unnecessarily? We have other more important things to do with our practice. Yes?

The core teaching of the Vimalakirti text we're studying is: (in my view) "You're doing it wrong." In other words there is an ease and simplicity to the practice that the rule bound can't grasp. Let go. It's all right. You'll be fine, and you'll find wonderful things.

And this was 2,500 years ago, during the Buddha's lifetime. 

So I'm catching up but slowly. Still a little zzzzzhy from the trip. That's OK. I've seen some of the Dharma talks and they make me laugh. I had one practice interview before I left, and I laughed then too. 

Without laughter, why Zen?

Monday, October 11, 2021

On Returning Home to New Mexico After One Last Trip to California

My travel companion and I made it back to New Mexico yesterday, and we've been decompressing and dealing with the altitude ever since. Spending a week near sea level for the first time in years means that when you get up at altitude (6-7000 ft) it takes some getting used to. 

And there's all the recollection of the trip to do. My companion may think of herself as "a simple girl from Gallup" but she's been in the Army serving in Korea, is finishing her Masters at a prestigious East Coast university, is planning on a trip to Europe a week from now (subject to change due to possible upcoming job), and is becoming well known in art and museum circles as a force of nature. She's an artist, a curator, a scholar, and a fine human being. The rest of us could take a lesson or two from people like her.

She toured me around Gallup when we got back. It was good because I was not that familiar with the town, and I certainly didn't know all the hidden pockets and the many stories she could tell of families and squabbles and living rough. Gallup has a notorious reputation, some of which is well-deserved, for racism, drunken Indians and more than its share of violence. But she obviously feels great empathy and high regard for the place and the people. So I was grateful to be taken around, to meet an old friend of hers, and to just consider the kind of life she's led, how it differs from the Standard Model, and how those differences can be an advantage and a curse. And to contemplate the differences between her life now and what it was like when she was "just a simple girl from Gallup."

She's been to California before, but she never experienced the places we went or if she had been to one or more of them (like Monterey) she'd never spent the time we did or explored the corners and intersections we did.

Nor had she seen a buffalo herd or an elephant seal refuge in California. Never stood on a beach watching a sea otter hammer a clam shell on its chest. She'd never seen ostriches running free in California nor had she visited a California mission before. She'd never been to Big Sur, never crossed the Bixby Canyon bridge, been in a redwood grove or late lunched at Nepenthe. Never been on Highway 1 at all that she remembered. 

She'd never seen Hearst's Castle glowing in the sunset light atop La Cuesta Encantada, nor did she know exactly what it was.

She'd never had split pea soup for breakfast, nor, honestly, had I. But I love Andersen's Split Pea Soup, and soon enough, so did she. But these days, it's hard to find, and we left the pea soup restaurant with cans to take home. 

She'd never been to the Cesar Chavez National Monument, nor had I, and we both got choked up remembering or learning the story of the rise and struggle of the United Farm Workers Union. She'd never seen field workers in the numbers we saw on our rural journey through the farms and orchards and vineyards and ranches. She saw how hard they worked and sensed how little they were regarded. 

She'd never been a fan of John Steinbeck, but since she read the opening paragraphs of Cannery Row on a street sign in Monterey, she thinks she'll become one. I gave her the book. 

She's never been a fan of "Ti Jean" Kerouac and never read his books, but she thinks she might become a fan and read his books after experiencing parts of Big Sur and hearing my story of how he drank himself to death after achieving fame for On the Road, c. 1957. I gave her a copy of his creative nonfiction novel Big Sur and asked her to read it after reading Cannery Row.

Returning home to New Mexico. Fall afternoon, sun low in the southwest, almost fruitcake weather. Oh so glad we went. Oh so glad to be home, greeted by a passel of kedies. "Where have you been?!" 

Where I needed to be. And now where I need to be. The Dharma Talks I missed while on the road are now posted online. I'll give myself time to decompress and catch up. Routines will return. Life goes on.







Saturday, October 9, 2021

Briefly Back to the Theater

As I say, this trip is in part a pilgrimage, and yesterday we were able to briefly revisit the theater where so much of my life and Ms. Ché's life was centered from 1973 to 1983, and really long after that. 

We arrived unannounced and found an unlocked door and proceeded into the lobby where a startled young woman asked, "Yes?" Indeed.

And I explained that I was an alumnus of the institution and was interested in just looking into the auditorium for a few minutes' nostalgia and memory. Would that be possible? And I've brought a friend so she could see where we spent so much of our youth. Could we?

"No. Well, maybe. The theater is closed for the time being, and we're very short staffed, but... " She was acting confused. Another young lady came from behind a door.

"Yes?" So I explained again, and again I was told about the short staffing and how it might be difficult to find someone to go with us, but she would check, and return shortly. 

A few minutes later a young man, well young to me, came through the lobby and greeted me and my travel companion, and I explained one more time, and he was thrilled and delighted, and he said, "Sure, come along," and off we went on an extended and compelling tour of the theater where literally my life was transformed and saved in a way all those many decades ago. 

It hasn't changed a whole lot. Some of it hasn't changed at all. Those changes that have been made are, so far as I could tell, for the better, much better, and everyone involved I think should be proud. 

We went up and down and all around and at times I felt I was home again. I think this is a big part of why I wanted to go on this trip. It's not just for the memories and nostalgia for les temps perdu. It is the recapture, if only for a moment, of "home" -- wherever and whenever that home was established, and whatever sort of home it might have been.

I've noticed the places we've avoided and though I've lived there, they were never "home." Everywhere we've stopped and spent time has been a home-place of one sort or another, and every time we've had wonderful encounters with extraordinary people who in some ways were always there. Even in Monterey, where I've never lived but have always felt a kinship to, comfortable and in place, we had extraordinary encounters with remarkable people, some strangers, some not, and that's how this trip has gone throughout.

And so it goes. Briefly I was back in the theater that became so much a part of me many decades ago. It was strange that at times we were the only ones there, and my mind's eye was filling it with casts and crews and the swirl of activity that was intrinsic to the operation. Ghosts, if you will, of what once was everyday. Now because of Covid, the work has stopped or been transferred off site or... well, it's complicated. The place could even be called an empty shell of what it once was, and yet for me all that life and life-giving and sharing is deeply, deeply a part of me and a part of that place. The building houses spirit. Those of us who have been through it know that, as did our tour guide, the current production manager, and we... bonded?.. with our shared sense of what was and what could be, despite the generation or more that separated us in age.

Things change, oh yes. But some things stay the same.

And the Zen of all this continues to astonish. Enlightenment? Nah. 

Well, maybe...😉🙏

Friday, October 8, 2021

Making Pilgrimage at the Bixby Canyon Bridge

We were on a tight schedule, and Highway 1 twisting along the coast of California is not exactly a quick drive, so we didn't have a whole lot of time to gawp in wonder, nor did we stop particularly close to the Bixby Canyon Bridge of lore and legend and practically every fast driving commercial and movie we've ever seen. That's how my travel companion knows it, whereas I see it as an emblem or avatar of Kerouac's "Big Sur" -- the creative non-fiction novel of his descent into alcoholic madness after the publication and sudden success of "On the Road" in 1957.


Jack Kerouac went to dry out in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin or shack located some distance up the canyon from the bridge, but its presence is a character in the novel. He and those who came to visit him in the shack (and who brought him more liquor) passed under it and it figured as an arcing force throughout the novel. 

Many make pilgrimage to the bridge during the year, and when we arrived, many were already there, performing ceremony and worshiping. So we didn't stop at the first turnout. It was pretty much full,  and we'd already encountered stupid people in the road not far from it. 

We stopped at the second turnout -- which is where the picture above was taken. The bridge is barely visible in the distance -- something I like. 

There were pilgrims, but only a few, at the second turnout, and we had an interesting encounter with one who thought he was a comedian. There is a steep cliff after all below the turnout. Someone could fall. 

We took many pictures, I took deep breaths, became somewhat emotional and then we continued on our journey. 

In some ways, the whole trip is pilgrimage. 


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Note: Alternate names: "Bixby Bridge," "Bixby Creek Bridge," "that famous bridge neat Big Sur," "Big Sur Bridge", "that bridge on Highway 1," "Rainbow Bridge" etc., etc.

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While I was going through some of the literature we brought back from our trip to California, I came across a reference to this:


In some ways, it's horrifying. In other ways, aww, kinda cute and kinky, no?

When I first saw the reference, I thought "Wow, is that the ranch a little further up the canyon from Ferlinghetti's shack where 'Ti Jean' went to dry out and where that sad donkey who came to greet him lived?" But no. This is on top of the hill with a view of the canyon and bridge, not in the canyon by Ferlinghetti's shack. 

I'm sure other wonders will appear in due time...

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Traveling Zazen

We made it to our first destination in California on Sunday evening, went to work on our tasks and socialized on Monday, and hopefully we'll complete our tasks here and socialize some more this evening then set off for our next destination. 

How do you practice zazen on the road like this, doing so many necessary things and socializing with friends and relations you haven't seen for a while? Where's the time to squeeze in a little meditation or just sitting in a whirlwind schedule like we've been keeping?

Right now there is a morning sit at the Zen center which I have accessed online, and I spent at least four minutes sitting before I started composing and writing this post. That's probably not enough of a sit, and I'll probably squeeze in a little more time later in the day, but it was enough to let me change my frame of mind and calm a little of the nerves that get me all agitated when I'm agitated in the city, with all the traffic and people and noise around. It's overstimulation for me. I need the relative calm tranquility of the country.

And yet no. I need the tranquility of where I live when I'm there, but here I am in the city in California, skies filled with smoke from the fires burning in the Sierras, I'm sitting in a motel room next to a rushing freeway the sounds of which are not masked much by the a/c blowing modestly cooled air. 

And this is what I need, because this is where I am. And so it will be through the rest of the day and through the days to come. We'll be in very, very different environments, strange locales, meeting with people here and there, on the road a lot, staying in small hotels and large, paying fortunes for gasoline, and so forth. Along the route, we'll encounter opportunities to witness, to view, to appreciate, and sometimes to sit. 

This is the Fall Practice Period and there is a fairly rigid schedule that we can't and don't keep to on the road. But it's there, and I can touch it and check in whenever we have the opportunity, need and desire.

I may only practice zazen a few scattered minutes a day. I may study the text only a few minutes before I fall asleep. But they're there -- the opportunities to sit and to study -- even as we are amid furious activity in the city, sitting beside the ocean at Big Sur, wandering a path through the redwoods, or sampling some Danish food treats in Solvang. 

Every moment of every day is Practice if we let it be.


Friday, October 1, 2021

Why I Stayed Away From the San Francisco Zen Center When I Lived In The City

I lived in the city of San Francisco for a year or so in the mid 1970s. The Hippie era had passed, of course, but the Counterculture was still very much underway. San Francisco was still providing the heartbeat of many alternative ways of life, most of which proved to be dead ends, quite literally in some cases such as the People's Temple mass suicide in Guyana. That happened after I departed San Francisco for the country at large, but Jim Jones and his operation on Geary were very much apparent and in the news when I lived there. 

As was the San Francisco Zen Center on Post, no Bush, or was it Page (I think! Man, I lose track of locations over the years...) where I was invited to attend zazen many times but never did. No. I stayed away.

Here's the thing. Some of the people I was working with had attended zazen at the Sokoji Temple and had moved with Suzuki Roshi to the Page Street facility in the later '60s. Zen was popular among a certain set of artists and actors and such -- as it still is. 

I'd been practicing on my own for oh, a decade or more, a practice I began after getting in touch with the San Francisco Zen Center when I was a teenager, possibly no more than 15. I forget the exact year, it was either 1965 or '66 -- or in a partial memory as early as 1964. The literature and instruction I received was enough to start me on a lifetime Zen path, but because I was not in San Francisco at the time and could not be and there was no nearby Zen sangha become part of, I was essentially a solitary Zen practitioner in the wilderness and I became accustomed to that state. "The Buddha is within you; the Dharma is you; the sangha is among whomever you find along the Dharma Path."

By the time I lived in San Francisco, the Zen Center had become fashionable. In fact, it was so fashionable that people competed for spots in the zendo in hopes of brushing knees and elbows with some of its famous practitioners. This grated on me, rubbed me very much the wrong way. What was the point of sitting zazen among a crowd whose minds were taken up with fame and notoriety. Was this any better than the jostling at the People's Temple or the ever-passing scene at Grace Cathedral? (Note: a friend from my time in San Francisco got AIDS and died and his ashes are interred at Grace Cathedral I learned years later...)

I blamed Richard Baker for the fame-seeking that seemed to overwhelm the San Francisco Zen Center. He had been the one I corresponded with early on. He took over when Suzuki Roshi died in 1971, but he'd been kind of the shaper of the Zen Center as an institution from well before that, and his influence is still strong -- which I don't judge as either good or bad, but it is an influence that shapes the SFZC and many others in this country and elsewhere -- toward an appeal to the rich, famous, renowned, politically powerful and those prominent in the arts and academics. 

That's not in and of itself a bad thing, but when it becomes the totality or near totality of the focus of the institution, it warps it, I think, in ways that do it no service in a Buddhist context and form barriers to the bodhisattva way of life for practitioners. 

I struggle with this a bit in the context of my current Zen practice and setting. The Zen Center I'm associated with is a legacy of Richard Baker, quite directly in fact. He founded a sangha at the facility in the '80s and eventually gave the facility, lock, stock, and barrel, to the current roshi in the '90s when he set out on a different quest. 

That legacy is more than just buildings -- though they are very important to the current sangha. I carry some of that legacy with me, but it is very different because it is earlier, much earlier in origin, more closely aligned to Suzuki Roshi who I keep saying I never met, nor did I ever meet Richard Baker, yet when I see and hear film and video and audio recordings of them, I recognize them immediately, and even the zendo at Sokoji -- the earliest Center in San Francisco -- is instantly familiar. I don't know where these memories come from. I attribute them to having seen films of Suzuki and Baker at the Midnight Movies in the later '60s. On the other hand, maybe I did visit Sokoji and maybe I did meet them somewhere, sometime, and I've just lost track.

This is somewhat similar to my memories of meeting Jerry Rubin in San Francisco in the '60s. I'm more certain of those meetings, and where and when they took place and why, but sometimes I wonder: are they false memories? Did it really happen?

Was I really at the Oakland Induction Center in October of 1967 during the Moratorium police riots? As a potential inductee? Yes, I'm certain I was, and there is film of me there and yet... maybe it's all an illusion... 

Which ultimately is the foundation of Buddhist enlightenment. It is all an Illusion, you see? Memories are real and false at the same time. "Reality" is real and false at the same time.

I didn't want to be part of the fame-seeking at the San Francisco Zen Center in the '70s. Even if I had kept to myself, there wasn't a way I could see to avoid it while in the company of others there. So. I didn't take up the invitations, I didn't go, and I continued practicing on my own in the apartment on Geary with the wonderful garden outside the living room bay windows. It was to me very much a Zen garden.

Where something happened. 

I've described it, I think, in other posts, and I went into considerable detail about "what happened" with one of the Zen teachers I deal with these days. The Void. I entered the Void while sitting zazen in my apartment on Geary one day. I wasn't entirely sure what it was, and after a time, I could not not enter it when sitting zazen. So I stopped regular practice. 

I described "what happened" and I also described an incident in San Francisco that took place while not sitting zazen, an incident that came back in brilliant technicolor detail when I was late for a morning sit during Spring Practice. The Zen teacher I described this incident to said, "You know what? That sounds like you were dreaming." Thinking back about it, it was very much like a dream. Yet the memory of it -- after sitting zazen and entering the Void for perhaps the first time that day in 1970-something in San Francisco -- is crystal clear, even now, and I am certain it "happened", but on what plane of existence? 

Was it a dream? Is it all a dream? Was my avoidance of attending zazen at the San Francisco Zen Center justified or even necessary? Or did it even "happen?" But the zendo at the Page Street Center is not at all familiar to me, whereas the Sokoji zendo very much is. So what happened? Or did anything?

Was I there or was I not there? Or both or neither?

Yes.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

On Losing Weight

I've lost about 40 pounds in the last few months. I need to lose 10 or 15 pounds more. But at this point, my clothes are mostly too big, I've got to punch more holes in my belts, I have more energy and can perform more tasks, and losing weight has proved to be quite a counter to the persistent fatigue that is a consequence of rheumatoid arthritis. 

I was at one point getting so heavy (at 240+ pounds) that I could barely get around, but sitting still or lying down was very uncomfortable too. I set a goal to lose weight, but even though I changed my diet, nothing seemed to happen for months. Then all of a sudden, weight started coming off, and I've tended to lose about a pound a week ever since -- with several plateaus along the way when nothing came off for a week or two.

I never consciously tried to lose weight in the past. In fact, for most of my life, I was darned skinny, tallish and not very well-built at all. A "rail." I didn't start gaining weight until I stopped smoking in the early '90s, but even then, I didn't weigh much above 180 or so -- which was still 40 pounds more than I'd weighed when I was smoking. Then when I developed rheumatoid arthritis about 6 years ago and was treated with large doses of prednisone, I gained weight at a remarkable clip, and even when I stopped taking prednisone, I kept gaining weight. 

It's only been about a year and a half ago that I set a goal of losing weight, at least 50 pounds, and less than a year since I actually started seeing weight loss. 

I feel better, much better. My rheumatoid arthritis is largely under control. I have not had a flare in several years, medications have been reduced, and overall, I'm well enough to accomplish much or most of what I set out to do. 

There is still so much more that needs doing. 

One of those things, of course, is this One Last Trip to California. I'm looking forward to it, and yet... there is a finality to it, a closing chapter, that I am struggling with. Ms. Ché isn't going, she has other plans (one of which involves taking a very sick cat to the vet) and she believes she is needed more here at home than on the road with me. And I think about how many times she and I made the trip between California and New Mexico on our own -- she often to attend writers' conferences, me to rest and work on the house -- and the times we came here together though we were still living in California. 

As we age, we see things differently, and reminiscence comes to the fore. As elders, we have stories to tell, and Ms. Ché has spent much of her life preparing to tell quite a story. I've been telling mine all along. But she's held back, mulling over the best way to communicate her extraordinary life. She's done it in plays and poems and creative nonfiction, but she's got so much more to add. I think that's part of what she'll be working on while I'm gone.

As for me, it's more like touching elements of the past, touching lightly, remembering positives, and doing a brief Kerouac-ian pilgrimage along Highway 1, Big Sur and Bixby Canyon and all that, just because. More than just that, though. There is a kinship that goes back a long way, and it's a form of honor. I wouldn't be back with Zen, for example, without Ti Jean's inspiration so long ago that came back in a flood. 

So. 

That's a minor update. Nothing more...


Listening to the Translator

Huh. Last evening's Dharma talk, or just talk, I'm not sure it was to be taken as Dharma, by the translator of the Vimalakirti Sutra was a hoot. 

Dude is 80 and has translated numerous Buddhist works and was ordained by the Dalai Lama and left the monastery to go teach at Columbia and who knows where else, and he has all kinds of degrees and not much of it matters because he doesn't know anything, and don't take what he says as gospel, he's just sharing what he can, you know?

He talked a mile a minute, clearly enjoying every minute of it, and informing the gathered multitude as he did, both about Vimalakirti and himself and Buddhism and whatever you want. I mean it's all the same in the end, isn't it?

I've said the sutra is one of the more enjoyable I've encountered, and after listening to Robert Thurman talk about it last evening, I think I know why. He loves it. He loves what he is able to do, and if he could, he would just keep doing it forever. But he's old, like so many of us are getting, and he won't be able to keep going forever, so why not meet in Costa Rica and have a grand old time? (He said he hoped to meet with Roshi in Costa Rica soon, or maybe somewhere else... but of course with the pandemic and the infirmities of age, it's not clear that that will ever be possible.)

So much of Zen and Buddhism is presented as something so damned serious and it's really not. Not if you scratch deep enough. There's a lot more hilarity and silliness than sometimes the abbots and roshis and senseis and such want to let on. 

And so, Robert Thurman has my admiration for making our task as students of the Sutra of Vimalakirti an enjoyable exercise, an uplifting Dharma teaching, and much less of a struggle than it might otherwise be.

🙏

Thurman's Wiki page is almost as fun as he is:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Thurman


And if you're into this sort of thing, go to his own website:

https://bobthurman.com/