A beautiful, crooked gassho


If my gassho is crooked but my heart is open, and intention good, then my gassho is beautiful!

Thank you for your practice.


The Silence of White American Buddhists on Ferguson

A Feast for Father Huntington

The Episcopal church honors the Reverend James Otis Sargent Huntington with a feast on this day. The good father was the founder of the Order of the Holy Cross, an independent Anglican monastic order that eventually aligned with the Benedictine rule. A fascinating figure by himself, but if you include his father and his grandfather [Read More...]

religion as a competitive sport

Yesterday, my older son was pleased to be named track coach at the local high school. As I understand it, that makes him some sort of honcho over events like running, hurdles, javelin, shot put, discus etc. Besides being flattered for him, I also wonder to what extent the position is one of those jobs where people get snookered -- nice title camouflaging bureaucratic drudgery.

It also made me bite off and munch the idea of religion as a competitive sport.

I don't mean this in some sort of snarky, critical sense, though heaven knows there's plenty of my-pecker's-longer-than-yours, one-true-faith posturing. What I mean is the inability or unwillingness to see my spiritual persuasion as other than goal-oriented ... get to heaven, get enlightened, become a martyr, etc. Sometimes the approach is crass; sometimes it's subtle and corrupt as a nobleman.

Competing with others is fairly easy to see and address. Competing with myself -- shooting for some brass-ring improvement and the like -- is more confounding. It rests on a lack of faith that whatever spiritual persuasion I have espoused really has any meat on the bone -- that I must keep propping it up and praising it and meeting its demands in order for it to have a real worth.

And perhaps that's the bottom line of religion as a competitive sport: Worth. As long as my persuasion needs to be somehow worthy, to that extent I will be mired in a world in which religion will deserve every snarky criticism it receives.

Competitive sport may be a place to start -- the books, the words, the adoration, the practices -- but it hardly seems capable of crossing any experiential finish line.

Why I Avoid Using the Word “Mindfulness”


Yesterday a guy contacted me because he’s writing an article about whether or not Buddhists should smoke cigarettes. When he asked my opinion I said, “Nobody should smoke cigarettes!”

He wanted to interview me as a Buddhist teacher anyway and he sent me some questions. Rather than getting me thinking about cigarette smoking, though, two of his questions got me thinking a lot about the concept of mindfulness.

The questions were:

Is smoking cigarettes inherently unmindful?”


“Can mindfulness help people quit smoking?”

The Japanese word that’s usually translated as “mindfulness” is 念 (nen). The character consists of two parts. The top part is 今, which is pronounced “ima” and means “now.” The bottom is 心, which is pronounced “kokoro” or “shin” and can be translated as both “mind” and “heart” depending on the context. The concepts of “mind” and “heart” (not as in the organ in the chest but the more conceptual meaning) are usually considered to be the same thing in Japanese.

This idea of “nen” (or “smirti” in Sanskrit) is an important concept that has been used by all forms of Buddhism since the very early days of the movement. But the word “mindfulness” as it’s used these days seems to be something very different.

It appears to me that when people I encounter use the word “mindfulness” or its variants like “mindful,” “mindfully,” and so on, they mean one of three things. These are:

1) The commercial meditation products created and endorsed by Jon Kabat Zinn and marketed under the trademarked names Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction ™ and Mindful Living Programs™ which are taught through an organization called the Center for Mindfulness based in Massachusetts.

2) Sort of, like, y’know, being, like, kinda, present and in the moment and stuff and, y’know, like, kinda thinking about what you do and whatever…

3) Some Buddhist thing that’s good for you but I don’t know anything else about it.

This is why I’ve been avoiding the word “mindfulness” for the past few years. I don’t know anything much about Jon Kabat Zinn’s thing. Though I get kind of annoyed when people pick up some aspect of Buddhism, trademark it and then make a fortune selling a watered down version to a public who assume the folks who own the trademark made the thing up themselves. It’s like if I trademarked Just Sitting™ and made a fancy logo then sold it to folks in the form of 8-week courses with associated books and paraphernalia (hmmmm… that’s actually a good idea… watch this space!).

I mean, I suppose it’s better than selling people heroin or game shows. I’d rather see people doing mindfulness courses than, I dunno, beating up random folks on the street. Still, I wonder what’s really going on.

Nishijima Roshi, my teacher, commented about this trend back in 2008 on his blog. There he said, among other things, “many people … think that the idea of ‘mindfulness’ is very important in understanding Buddhism. But I think that such interpretation includes very dangerous misunderstandings. Therefore I have been thinking for many years that we should understand the true meaning of ‘mindfulness.’ We should never misunderstand that having ‘mindfulness’ is a kind of True Buddhism. The idea of having ‘mindfulness’ may be an example of idealistic philosophy. The isolated reverence of ‘mindfulness’ can never be Buddhism. It is only idealistic philosophical thought.” He suggested that we use the word “consciousness” instead.

I’ve already edited that quotation a bit to try to make it clearer (I used to do that for him when he was alive, so I don’t think he’d mind), but let me try and explain a little further. Nishijima often talked about “True Buddhism.” I’ve tended to shy away from using that phrase because when I have people reacted badly as if the next step was going to be suggesting that we burn all those who were not True Buddhists at the stake or something.

Instead of that, what I want to hone in on is the part where he says “the isolated reverence of mindfulness can never be Buddhism.” In other words, we can’t just remove mindfulness from its context. Well, we can, I suppose. But it would be like the difference between engaging in a full course of good diet, healthy exercise and adequate amounts of rest, or just doing a bunch of push-ups every morning and continuing to eat your normal bag of Doritos and a Twinkie for every meal.

Mindfulness is not a synonym for Buddhist practice. Lots of people, including the guy who sent me those interview questions, appear to think they’re the same thing. They’re not. In fact, I kind of wonder what this “mindfulness” thing even is that people are talking about.

Like Nishijima Roshi, it appears to me that the word indicates some kind of idealistic, intellectual process. It sounds to me as if people might be being taught to get really, really into their heads. Even if that’s not what’s going on in the MBSR™ courses, the general tone of whatI hear whenever the word comes up appears to indicate a very “heady” sort of thing.

In the context of Buddhist training, mindfulness is one of the Noble Eightfold Path. The full list is:

1) Right View

2) Right Intention

3) Right Speech

4) Right Action

5) Right Livelihood

6) Right Effort

7) Right Mindfulness

8) Right Concentration

Slicing just one of these out and presenting it by itself is not the worst thing you could ever do. They’re all good. But the Buddha regarded them as equally important parts of a full system. The physical ones, like speech, action, livelihood and effort, are just as important as the mental ones like view, intention, mindfulness and concentration. Notice that there are four of each.

To get back to the questions that initially got me thinking about this, I do not teach mindfulness, so I can’t say whether mindfulness would help someone stop smoking. Maybe it would. My dad used to hypnotize people to get them to stop smoking. So I know that works sometimes. As to whether or not smoking is “unmindful,” I just don’t know what that question means at all. I’ve tried and tried but I can’t come up with anything coherent.

I picture a guy smoking a cigarette and really concentrating hard on it, really tasting the smoke, really feeling the burn in his throat and lungs, really getting into his cigarette. I suppose it could be done. When I see people smoking, they usually seem pretty absent minded about it. Then again, when I see people eating they generally seem to be more involved in something else. We’d all be better off if more people got more involved in what they were doing, I think.

But this word “mindfulness,” I just want to stay away from it.

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There is still plenty of time to sign up for our  Three-Day Zazen and Yoga Retreat Dec. 5-7, 2014 at Mt. Baldy (near Los Angeles, CA)

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I certainly don’t mind if you send me donations!

rewriting the tax code

Passed along in email (from Huffington Post)

Economists Say We Should Tax The Rich At 90 Percent

 America has been doing income taxes wrong for more than 50 years.
All Americans, including the rich, would be better off if top tax rates went back to Eisenhower-era levels when the top federal income tax rate was 91 percent, according to a new working paper by Fabian Kindermann from the University of Bonn and Dirk Krueger from the University of Pennsylvania.

The top tax rate that makes all citizens, including the highest 1 percent of earners, the best off is “somewhere between 85 and 90 percent,” Krueger told The Huffington Post. Currently, the top rate of 39.6 percent is paid on income above $406,750 for individuals and $457,600 for couples.
Fewer than 1 percent of Americans, or about 1.3 million people, reach that top bracket.
Here is the conclusion from the report, charted:
marginal tax rates

What you’re seeing is decades of a more or less strict adherence to the gospel that tax cuts for the highest income earners are good. The trend began with President Kennedy, but his cuts were hardly radical. He lowered rates when the American economy was humming along, no longer paying for World War II and, relative to today, an egalitarian dreamland. To put things in perspective, Kennedy cut rates to around 70 percent, a level we can hardly imagine raising them to today. The huge drops -- from 70 percent to 50 percent to less than 30 percent -- came with the Reagan presidency.

In comparison to decades of cuts, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama each raised taxes at the top by a historically insignificant amount. Obama also proposed modest tax increases, raising taxes on families making more than $250,000 from 33 to 36 percent, and on individuals making more than $200,000 from 36 to 39.6 percent. These increases failed in the House.

A 90 percent top marginal tax rate doesn’t mean that if you make $450,000, you are going to pay $405,000 in federal income taxes. Americans have a well-documented trouble understanding the notion of marginal tax rates. The marginal tax rate is the amount you pay on your income above a certain amount. Right now, you pay the top marginal tax rate on every dollar you earn over $406,750. So if you make $450,000, you only pay the top rate on your final $43,250 in income. (emphasis added)

A very high marginal tax rate isn’t effective if it’s riddled with loopholes, of course. Kindermann and Krueger's paper is also focused solely on income, not wealth, and returns on wealth are how the truly superrich make a living.

Despite these limitations, Kindermann and Krueger say that a top marginal tax rate in the range of 90 percent would decrease both income and wealth inequality, bring in more money for the government and increase everyone’s well-being -- even those subject to the new, much higher income tax rate.
“High marginal tax rates provide social insurance against not making it into the 1 percent,” Krueger told The Huffington Post. Here’s what he means: There’s a small chance of moving up to the top rung of the income ladder, Krueger said. If rates are high for the top earners and low for everyone else, there’s a big chance you will pay a low rate and a small chance you will pay a high rate. Given these odds, it is rational to accept high income tax rates on top earners and low rates for the rest as a form of insurance.

This insurance takes the form of low-income people paying dramatically less in taxes. “Everyone who is below four times median income” -- that’s about $210,000 for households -- “pays less,” Kruger said.

The paper assumes that tax rates won’t stop a future Bill Gates from wanting to start Microsoft. Instead, what it finds is that labor supply among the 1 percent would decline -- translation, they would work a little less -- but it “does not collapse.” That’s because of who the authors assume makes up the top income bracket: celebrities, sports stars, and entrepreneurs -- people with innate talents that are hugely rewarding, but only for a short period of time. They only have a few years to use their skills to make most of the money they will ever make. High tax rates don’t lessen their degree of desire to be productive, the authors said.

Krueger described the phenomenon like this: “How much less hard would LeBron James play basketball if he were taxed at a much higher rate? The answer is not much. “James knows he only has five years,” or so of peak earning potential, Krueger said, and so he will work to make as much as he can during that time. If high income tax rates robbed the would-be 1 percent of their stick-to-itiveness, the paper’s conclusions would change.

And so whether you agree with this paper’s conclusion comes down, to a certain extent, to what you think of the 1 percent of income earners: who they are and why they make so much money. Over the last few decades, a huge portion of the rapid growth of the very highest incomes relative to the rest of us has been driven by rising executive and financial sector pay. The question, then, is if confronted with a vastly higher tax rate, would Jamie Dimon still behave like LeBron James.

And a Blessed Evolution Day to All!

It was on this day in 1859, some one hundred and fifty-five years ago, that Charles Darwin’s revolutionary book On the Origin of Species was published. While the great observation is probably Darwin Day, marking Charles Darwin’s birth on the 12th of February, some mark this out as Evolutionary Day, a time of celebration, singing, [Read More...]

The Four Unpleasant Truths, and a Kicker

Home, and we don't know what is causing this shortness of breath.  But we know I have a well-functioning heart, and no blood clots and don't have a strange lung disease brought on by my Rapamune.  I have yet to get a pulmonary function test, which they prefer to do outpatient.  We have a maybe:  maybe my breathing is impaired by having smoked a pack and a half a day for thirty years. And I grew up smoking passively in a household with two smokers.

But wait, this isn't fair - I quit in 1988.  It was hard, too.  I thought my lungs cleared up when I quit.

Karma isn't fair, but it's just.  All the time you smoked, it was damaging your alveoli.  Bad karma, bad.

But today is another day.  I was sitting doing the multiple eyedrops for post- and pre-cataract surgery and enjoying Tricycle Magazine, when I read this, in an article called The Present Moment.
No one denies the potential benefit from learning to calm or focus the mind, but many Buddhist teachers worry that an approach may be easy and give immediate benefits and yet risk discarding essential elements in the Buddha's teaching.
Wait.  I actually had a little dose of MBSR years ago, as part of a course in overall healthy living taught by my health club.  It did not just risk discarding the teachings - it carefully explained that it had nothing to do with religion.  It was about you feeling better and living longer.

A secular meditation practice is almost never sustained, and I'm here to tell you why.  Because sitting still doing nothing opens you up to reality, and that's the last thing most of us want.  Why is that?

This is a truth abundantly restated on the internet, which has enabled us to complain a lot verbally and visually. And in fact, it's religion - a restatement of the Buddha's First Noble Truth, the truth of dukkha, the suffering inherent in life.  So let me continue in this vein with my Four Unpleasant Realities.

1.  Life sucks.
2.  It's your fault that it sucks.  (a) You think it shouldn't, and (b) you keep trying to evade all the suckiness with distractions, positive thinking, and scotch and soda.
3.  There is a way to bring the volume of suckiness down a bit.
And here's the assignment -
4.  The way is a complex, sustained effort to meet the suckiness face to face, and change the way you act.

Huh?  What?

This was really funny when Tom and I came up with it at the breakfast table an hour ago, but it is not amusing me so much as I write about it.
And there I stopped writing a week or two ago, and got distracted by the second cataract surgery.  Such is old age that I forgot about this draft until now. And I am again stuck with the subject.  Because nobody wants to hear about The Eightfold Path and behave themself.  So I'll cut to the executive summary, which is sometimes expressed like this ~

Sorry about all the black.

But it's true.  And the founder of the Zen I study, Dogen, said that when you get that, you've got it:  life is impermanent. YOU are impermanent.  Not only will you die, but you have no idea when you'll die, today, tomorrow, after you print out your to-do list.  And that goes for everything and everyone you love.  Get that, and you'll be motivated to be with the moment you've got.

So, it's Monday.  Did you need this on Monday?  Yes, probably.  I know I do.

Beat Generation artifacts

Jack Kerouac, 1962 file photo
LOS ANGELES (AP) — It's been called the letter that launched a literary genre — 16,000 amphetamine-fueled, stream-of-consciousness words written by Neal Cassady to his friend Jack Kerouac in 1950.
Upon reading them, Kerouac scrapped an early draft of "On The Road" and, during a three-week writing binge, revised his novel into a style similar to Cassady's, one that would become known as Beat literature.
The letter, Kerouac said shortly before his death, would have transformed his counterculture muse Cassady into a towering literary figure, if only it hadn't been lost.
Turns out it wasn't, says Joe Maddalena, whose Southern California auction house Profiles in History is putting the letter up for sale Dec. 17. It was just misplaced, for 60-some years.

Like the ivy leaves that grow slowly over the once-new university buildings, the past shape-shifts with the passage of time. I forget how many times Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" was rejected by publishers before one of them took the plunge in 1957, but I can remember reading the book when it first came out and thinking that I could see both the energy and inspiration the book provided AND why the publishers had shied away from it.

In Greenwich Village where I hung out with friends, there was a lot of excitement over espresso and cigarettes: Kerouac had broken some conformist boundaries, we all agreed, and we were all of an age to be skeptical of, if not outraged by, boundaries. I don't specifically remember anyone describing the book as "good writing," but I suppose they did: If you like something, it's good, right? I liked the book but wasn't convinced it was all that good.

Now, of course, the ivy of time has grown and Kerouac et al have grown into an intellectual blob described as the "Beat Generation." Following on the heels of the safe and sane, white-picket-fence conformity that followed the gut-wrenching uncertainties and sorrow of  World War II, the beats helped to throw open the doors of imagination and possibility ... and paved the way for the flower power hippies who would follow in their wake ... as well as a school system and lifestyle that turns out dumber and dumber graduates.

As Cassady was an inspiration to Kerouac, so I count Kerouac as an inspiration of my own. But it was nothing literary, for me. His inspiration led me to hitchhike across America twice. Looking back through the ivy leaves, I am happy and a bit surprised I did such a thing. But at the time, and in the event, it was plain as salt: Hitchhiking, like doing a military tour, is only interesting and elevating in retrospect. Hitchhiking is predominantly a matter of patience -- waiting and patience, two pretty good exercises.

Kerouac climbed into a bottle and pointed to wider vistas. I packed a small, dime-store suitcase and stuck my thumb out. Both are now capable of growing some handsome and overblown ivy, for my money.

Funny how the ordinary becomes noteworthy as time passes. Just look at the artifacts up for sale in auction houses.

where the rubber hits the road

Anyone interested in the intersection of American business with bloodbath-prone countries could do worse than watching "Firestone and the Warlord," a Frontline documentary that digs into the question of Firestone's complicity in various wars in Liberia. At one time, Firestone owned the largest rubber plantation in the world in Liberia and provided the bulk of America's tires at a time when motorized vehicles were becoming indispensable.

The company, bought out by the Japanese and rebranded as Bridgestone, saw little or nothing wrong with the financial and moral support it implicitly gave to the power-bent rebels. Their reasoning was based, it seems on A. profit and B. the argument that their organization benefited people who might otherwise be destitute.

I found the video interesting for the clash of templates ... the moral questions of 'using' those who are poor and less savvy vs. the profit questions that make the rich richer and the poor only marginally better off. Firestone did some good things (medical, schooling) for those it touched. But it also funded a philosophical and actual warlord with enormous amounts of blood on his hands.