January 30, 2009

Homeless Lit: Cannery Row


Cover of the first edition of John Steinbeck's 1945 novel.
This is the first in a series looking at how homelessness is presented in literature. Does fiction present homeless folk realistically? Are we romanticised? Are we presented as scummier, less-wholesome beings than the good people most of us are? Are the homeless people of yore different from what we're like today?
--
"a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream"
-- A description of the street Cannery Row,
from the first sentence in the book.

Cannery Row is the story of many poor and interesting people who live on Cannery Row, a street next to the Pacific Ocean, where many sardine-canning factories stood, in Monterey, California.
A character called Doc is usually identified as the main character in the story, but, truly, the plot of the story results from the many actions of "Mack and the boys," a group of men who are homeless at the beginning of the book, and whom the omnipotent third-person narrator tracks most closely for the whole of the story.
As I say, Mack and the boys are homeless at the beginning, but in Chapter I, they gain possession of a Cannery Row building, thereafter refered to as the Palace Flophouse, where they take up residence without need of paying rent. A solid mass of text describing Mack and the boys concludes Chapter II [emphases, mine]:
Mack and the boys [spin] in their orbits. They are the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey and the cosmic Monterey where men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them. Mack and the boys are the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces. In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row. What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals? Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums. Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.
There's lots of interesting stuff in this paragraph.

First, Steinbeck [as an omnipotent, crotchety third-person narrator] calls Mack and the boys [Mack, Hazel, Eddie, Hughie and Jones] "the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces." He is refering to the Charities of antiquity. Quoting wikipedia, "In Greek mythology, a Charis (Χάρις) is one of several Charites (Χάριτες; Greek: 'Graces'), goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity and fertility. They ordinarily numbered three: Aglaea ('Beauty'), Euphrosyne ('Mirth'), and Thalia ('Good Cheer'). In Roman mythology they were known as the Gratiae, the 'Graces.'"
Certainly, the five homeless men friends are very admirable in many ways, as are the biggest subset of the homeless in Sacramento. They are clearly, basically good-hearted and well-meaning and mostly oblivious to their own self-interestedness and destructiveness.
An early tangential story, within the greater story of Mack & boys' efforts to throw a big party for good old Doc, has a lonely watchman, named William, trying to make friends with the five homeless guys. For no particular reason, the homeless guys reject William, and after some other insensitive encounters, William plunges an ice pick into his heart. "It was amazing how easily it went in. William was the watchman before Alfred came. Everybody liked Alfred."
From an unsourced commentary, found online, some wisdom about the 'tragedy within merryment' which repeats in Steinbeck's sad novella:
The symbolism of chaos-and-order is basic to Cannery Row; various characters, each in his own fashion, try to arrange and observe what cannot, in any essential aspect, be changed. As Steinbeck says in one of his "inter-chapters" or digressions, it is the function of The World - of human communication - to create by means of faith and art an Order of love which is mankind's only answer to that fate which all men, and indeed all life, must ultimately share. And if John Steinbeck turns to the "outcasts" from society as symbols for this vision, it may be that only the outcasts of machine civilization can still remember who they truly are.

Once again, even in this most charming of books, Steinbeck recapitulates the themes
so integral to his work: the need of the human animal to organize, to combine for purposes beyond that of the mere individual appetite; the corruption and poison of moral pomposity and insane acquisition; and the loneliness-within-brotherhood of all flesh and mortality.

In Zen terms, the novella hones in on the idea of interbeing [A state of connectedness and interdependence of all phenomena], or, similarly but perhaps better, circuminsessional interpenetration. We all both deflate and delight each other, usually without much awareness of our powers of destruction and our ability to bring joy. We are also oblivious to the realization that each other is all we have and that the one thing we don't have is ourself. [We stupidly, endlessly defend the illusion of ego.]
In the quote from Chap II, Steinbeck writes about "fear and hunger," which is, again, the paired cheribim of "fear and desire" [in the garden of Eden] which destroy us and hold us back, and is what we must overcome to save us. In the rescue mission in Sacramento, fear and desire ["you risk going to hell" and "jesus would love to see you in heaven"] are used to rescue homeless men from the fear and desire ['destitution/meaninglessness/drudgery of the homeless condition' and 'alcohol! drugs! immediate relief!'] outside the rescue-mission property gates. [I would say that instead of swapping one's fear-and-desire for some other set of fear-and-desire, life's purpose is to overcome fear-and-desire, altogether, and -- as with most things that suppress us -- we overcome them by examining them closely and finding them not to be so special or to be a real threat.]
In the novella, Mack and the boys cause a lot of trouble while, mostly, having good intentions. In the wake of their parties and clever adventures, other people's lives are damaged. But, Doc, the book's great good supposedly-responsible character, too, is rather-unintentionally the cause of destruction. A character in the shadows, a retarded lad named Frankie ["Frankie drifted about like a small cloud."], hangs out at Doc's lab. Because he loves Doc, he steals a clock as a present for him. As a result of the theft, Frankie is hauled away to a life in an institution with Doc being rather oblivious to it all.
Late in the book, Doc makes some observations about Mack and the boys to a friend with whom he is drinking some beer and listening to classical music:
Doc said "...Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else."
and a little later ...
"It has always seemed strange to me," said Doc. "The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second."
"Who wants to be good if he has to be hungry too?" said [Doc's friend].
"Oh, it isn't a matter of hunger. It's something quite different. The sale of souls to gain the whole world is completely voluntary and almost unanimous -- but not quite. Everywhere in the world there are Mack and the boys. I've seen them in an ice-cream seller in Mexico and in an Aleut in Alaska. You know how they tried to give me a party and something went wrong? But they wanted to give me a party. That was their impulse."
Certainly, Mack and the boys are romanticised and overly admired by the narrator and main character, Doc, compared to the harsh glare of reality. But there is an element of truth to all that the narrator & Doc [that is, Steinbeck] is saying. From being alienated to the madness of a regular back-stabbing life, the bums of Cannery Row and the acclimated-homeless people of Sacramento enjoy a certain availability to wisdom and openness and genuineness that is -- damn it -- admirable.

January 27, 2009

Whatever Happened to "Love Thy Neighbor?"

One thing that is mostly missing from Union Gospel sermons, and is intermittent in what a homeless person experiences staying in the mission dorm, is the ideal of brotherly love or ‘love thy neighbor.’ And, indeed, in the sermons, there is far, far more hate talk about earthly society than mention of anything in the vicinity of lovingkindness.

This bugs me. Most of the homeless guys I know have a lot of problems, including addictions, unemployment and a hardscrabble life getting anything done, due to the time-devouring way all the homeless-service providers in our world are organized. Getting kindness and endeavoring, ourselves, to be kind is a rather obvious need.

Christianity didn't used to be stinting with kindness and talk about kindness. Writes Elaine Pagels early on in her book Beyond Belief:
Jesus … said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What God requires is that human beings love one another and offer help – even, or especially, to the neediest.” [Mark 12:29-31]

Such convictions became the practical basis of a radical new social structure, Rodney Stark suggests [in his book The Rise of Christianity, pg 86-87] that we read the following passage from Matthew’s gospel “as if for the very first time,” in order to feel the power of this new morality as Jesus’ early followers and their pagan neighbors must have felt it:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me. [Matthew 25:35-49]
These precepts could hardly have been universally practiced, yet Tertullian [in his book The Apology] says that members of what he calls the “peculiar Christian society” practiced them often enough to attract public notice: “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our practice of lovingkindness: ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’”
Recently, on consecutive nights, Brett Ingalls of Vacaville Bible Church and Jimmy Roughton of Capitol Free Will Baptist Church gave tremendous, inspiring sermons that had a lot to say about goodness, the near cousin of "love thy neighbor." Hooray, them.

Brett Ingalls used the whole of his time to talk on the topic of "forgiveness." He had a lot to say that was fascinating and he anchored what he said to Scripture. Christians should endeavor not to be angry with each other, but when one is aggrieved, he should discuss what is wrong in a kindly way with the other who has hurt or harmed him. A Christian who transgresses against another should prepare himself to apologize, humbly and genuinely. And, how ever much someone has hurt or harmed us, we must forgive, fully.

There was a second part to this -- a "vertical" aspect -- where Christians humbly and genuinely seek forgiveness from God, when appropriate.

I wish I had an audio or transcript of what all Pastor Brett said, or had taken notes. From the gist of what I remember and will retain, I see the elements of outstanding guidelines for best behavior.

Jimmy Roughton, the next night, was in top form, speaking passionately and pacing back and forth in front of the altar like a caged jungle cat. His sermon was on the idea that Christians needed to be wonderful examples to others both for themselves, to live as manifestations of their dear faith, and so that nonbelievers will see them as beacons of the transforming power of belief in Jesus.

While many of the Union Gospel preachers make becoming a Christian sound like a burdensome, horrible chore, Reverend Roughton spoke of it as something that is in all ways wonderful and joyous and burden lifting. Roughton ended his surmon with one of his varietions on Pascal's Wager, saying that he would rather be wrong with all he believed about God and Jesus, and suffer no penalty, than be a nonbeliever and be wrong -- and, thus, be hellbound. Roughton is the only mission preacher who uses Pascal's Wager (though never identifying his argument as such). By the reaction of the guys in the seats, "the wager" seems motivating to many. It doesn't work on me; I feel I'm stuck believing whatever seems to be true.

While I think Ingalls's and Roughton's sermons were excellent and effective, I await a sermon that is very directly about lovingkindness, addressed to the tough rescue-mission crowd. Such a sermon might talk about how the guys should think about their behavior being too selfish or me-centered.

Today, getting a bed at the mission requires aggressiveness with some pushing and shoving at the sign-up window, outside. Lining up for dinner is competative, with many guys using sneaky means to move up in the serving line. A lot of guys have a need to maximize the space they have at the dining table; they put their arms on the table at either side of their tray.

A lot of the selfish nonesence is understandable. There are benefits that accrue from being selfish in Homeless World Sacramento. For people who don't have much, having a little extra by way of being aggressive is meaningful.

At Loaves & Fishes, there are tussles to get better or earlier services than others: There's a 7am race to get early men's showers and low lunch-ticket numbers. We live in a race to the bottom; because so many are extremely self interested, others of us have to act in self interested ways to get something close to 'our share.'

Homeless World Sacramento is full of mostly-wonderful people [truly, truly], but the tough time-devouring circumstances in which we live makes ungenerous and suspicious people out of us. Teach us to be kind, O Preachers.

January 23, 2009

My situation, as compared to the Wanderer's

After having put up the Tricycle piece today about a Chinese Zen man of high rank experiencing homelessness, with equanimity, Ed of the blog Bad Buddha asked how that man’s experience resonates with my own.

To my credit, I have to say that I am doing a great deal better in Homeless World Sacramento than I would ever have supposed. A large part of this is that “the guys” – that is, other homeless people, most of whom are men – are pretty terrific.

My experience differs from the author of the Trike piece in a lot of ways, some of which may be significant. I rarely have to sleep on the streets, and I’ve never had to dumpster dive for sustenance.

I’ve found shelter at the Union Gospel Mission and I’ve been mostly lucky at being able to renew my privilege of getting a seven-day “reservation” to use one of their bunk beds to sleep on. There is food available for me at the mission and at Loaves & Fishes that will guarantee that I will eat good food. Also, I’ve gotten small sums of money from my mother’s death benefit and from general assistance, and food stamps, to assure that there’s a little extra.

When I have had to “stay out” because I could not get a bed at the mission shelter, I usually have just stayed up all night. Sometimes, I’ve found a place to sleep where I haven’t been bothered.

Unlike New York, where the Wanderer was homeless, there aren’t many businesses in Sacramento that are open late hours. The train station is sometimes open as late as midnight; I have stayed there to stay warm. But, both the train station and the bus station sometimes are careful to check people in their lobby and toss out anyone who doesn’t have a ticket. I’ve been tossed out of both places.

There is a Denny’s near Old Sacramento that is open all night. If I have money when I’m out, I’ll go there for a little while.

Another option I have is to stay in the lobby of a hospital Emergency Room. I haven’t done this yet, but I’m told that the Davis Medical Center is a place a well-kempt homeless person can stay and sleep, pretending a friend or relative is being tended to by the hospital staff.

There are a lot of people who have treated me badly because they can tell I’m homeless. Sometimes, I feel bad about that and sort of hide away all day.

As I say, I have a lot of people out here whom I consider to be friends. Some of them have some overwhelming drinking or substance-abuse problems, though when I see them they’ve been sober and even keeled. In just the last week, two good friends, separately, got released from six-month and 30-day stays in jail for being drunk in violation of their parole. I don’t think that either guy has any intention to cease drinking.

Also, my friend Steve and his family have been a big help to me.

While pretty much everybody knows I am Buddhist, other guys I know are pretty intent on making a Christian out of me. Because I sing the hymns and have learned a lot about the Bible, many think I must be wavering in my dedication to Buddhism, but I am not, at all.

The author of the Tricycle piece writes a lot about equanimity. I cannot say that I am equanimitous. My mood varies, but, I think, I am pretty much universally thought to be a nice, smart, big-hearted guy who will do anything for anybody.

The exception to all this is that I’m not happy about a lot of ways that the mission and Loaves & Fishes are run. [See my piece Phobos and Thanatos.] There’s a fellow on-staff at the mission who seems to have no other job than dispense misery and threaten to take guys’ bunks away from them. I cannot understand why the fellow does that or why the mission does not rebuke him. Loaves & Fishes is a dirty and inefficient place, unworthy of the population that it serves. Still, both the mission and L&F attract many Christ-like or bodhisattva-like people who help run the two organizations.

I do try to be even-keeled, and some days I’m successful at that. Sometimes, though, I will have a difficult time in the middle of the night, worrying about how I might ever exit my homeless circumstance and the nine-months-running felony thing – my own personal Bleak House – that refuses to either wrap up or go away. Also, at times, my mind gets caught up thinking about what a supremely dastardly person my sister is. When that happens, I try to distract myself with other, happy thoughts.

As I say, I’m, mostly, not unhappy. Plus, if I ever get back to a life that is somewhat like normalcy, I know I will greatly appreciate a lot of things about it that I didn’t in the past when my life was normal. I will appreciate being more in control of the period when I sleep. I will appreciate being able to decide what it is I will eat. I will appreciate not having to worry about where a bathroom is that I can use, or that I might get sick and suffer mightily.

My experience of homelessness has also "awakened" me toward having an enormous amount of sympathy for poor and homeless people and their incredibly frustrating struggles and to the knowledge that "justice" in America is in terrible shape. Had I not been here in Homeless World Sacramento, I'd never have gained this awareness.

The Wanderer

Master Sheng-yen, the author of the Tricycle article that is presented here. Thanks to "the other Tom" for identifying him in the third comment to this blogpost. [Update: Master Sheng-yen passed away on Feb 3. He was 79 years old.
My friend Nagarjuna alerted me to a piece in Tricycle magazine about homelessness. I hope that Tricycle and the author don't mind my posting the piece here:

AFTER I RESIGNED from my post as an abbot in Taiwan, Dr. C. T. Shen [a cofounder of the Buddhist Association of the United States] brought me back to New York to spread the dharma there. My return to the United States did not restore me to my former position of strength, however. There was no room for me to live at the Temple of Great Enlightenment, which was occupied by nuns. I stayed at Shen's villa, named Bodhi House, on Long Island and traveled back and forth to the city. But I wanted to move out because I was too far away from my students. Shen told me, "If you move out, I can no longer take good care of you."

"That's okay," I said. "I will wander."

I had no money for rent, so I slept in front of churches or in parks. I learned how to get by from three of my students, who had experience living on the street. They taught me to find discarded fruit and bread in back of convenience stores and food markets. They showed me that I could make a little money here and there from odd jobs, sweeping up shops or tending a pretzel stand. I learned that I could store my things in a locker at Grand Central Terminal and wash clothes at a laundromat.

My students pointed out the fast-food restaurants that were open twenty-four hours, and they told me that I could spend my nights at these places, resting and drinking coffee.

I wandered through the city, a monk in old robes, sleeping in doorways, nodding with the homeless through the night in coffee shops, foraging through dumpsters for fruit and vegetables. I was in my early fifties, no spring chicken, but I was lit from within by my mission to bring the dharma to the West. Besides, what did it matter? The lessons Dongchu had taught me made it a matter of indifference to me whether I slept in a big room or a small room or in the doorway of a church.

Some people may have felt pity for me, but I didn't pity myself. I didn't feel that I was unlucky. Some people feared me and worried that I would ask for money or other help. I decided it was best not to call on anyone, although I did accept some offers of help. I spent nights at the apartments of my followers. Master Haolin welcomed me and let me stay at his monastery in Chinatown. But I did not want to stay there too long, because I did not know if I would be able to repay him for this service. I preferred to wander.

This may strike some of you as strange—that a friend and fellow monk would let me leave his monastery to live out on the street. But Haolin had a very small place without much income. When I lived there, it was an added burden on him. If he was wealthy and had a big place I would have felt differently about imposing on his hospitality.

I think that being out on the streets was a good thing, because it taught me not to rely on anyone and pushed me to find my own place to propagate Chan. There is a long tradition of bodhisattvas enduring difficulties as they spread the dharma.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught that to be a great practitioner, a bodhisattva, you do not look toward your own happiness and security. You only wish for sentient beings to cease suffering. In India, Buddhist monks had to travel to areas without Buddhism, and they would inevitably encounter resistance. When they arrived in China, Confucianism and Taoism were dominant, and the Confucians wanted to keep the Buddhists out, espe cially the monastics. Shakyamuni Buddha believed that if you could withstand difficulties, you would be able to inspire others and thus influence them. Ordinary people just want life to be smooth, without problems. But Buddhist practitioners have a different attitude. They are ready to endure many difficulties if they are in the service of transforming others.

HOW DO WE endure hardship? Master Mazu taught that it is necessary to have a mind of equanimity. This means always maintaining a calm, stable mind, which is not ruled by emotion. When you encounter success, you don't think that you created it. Don't get too excited or proud of yourself. Your success happened for a reason and came to pass because of many people and circumstances. If you work hard at something but find that too many obstacles prevent you from accomplishing it, you may have to give up. In that case, you shouldn't get depressed. Conditions aren't right. Perhaps this will change, perhaps it won't. You are not a failure. Becoming upset only causes suffering. Keeping a mind of equanimity, though, does not mean being inactive or passive. You still need to fulfill your responsibilities. Master Xuyun said, "While the business of spreading Buddha's teachings is like flowers in the sky, we ought to conduct them at all times. Although places for the practice [monasteries, retreat centers] are like the reflection of the moon in the water [referring to the fact that they are illusory and impermanent], we establish them wherever we go." This means that these jobs are illusory, but we still need to do them. Sentient beings are illusory, but we still need to help deliver them. A place of practice is like the reflection of the moon in the water. It's not real, but we still build monasteries so we can deliver sentient beings. This is our responsibility. We must try our best to fulfill our responsibilities, without being attached to success and failure.

Chan masters apply the mind of equanimity in all aspects of their lives. If they don't, they are not truly Chan masters. In my time of wandering, I kept a mind of equanimity. I didn't think of myself as homeless. I thought of Master Hanshan [1546–1623], who lived on Tiantai Mountain. He used the sky as his roof, the earth as his bed, the cloud as covers, a rock as a pillow, and the stream as his bathtub. He ate vegetables if vegetables were available. If rice and vegetables were available in a monastery, he ate that. If nothing was available, he ate tree leaves or roots. He felt free and wrote beautiful poems.
Beneath high cliffs I live alone
swirling clouds swirl all day
inside my hut it might be dim
but in my mind I hear no noise

I passed through a golden gate
in a dream my spirit returned
when I crossed a stone bridge
I left behind what weighted me down
my dipper on a branch click clack
When you have nothing, you are free. When you own something, then you are bound to your possessions. I felt very happy. I did not feel that I had no future. In fact, I felt my future was rich and great indeed because I had students. I still had a mission to fulfill. I just did not know where I would sleep at night. I knew that I was much better off than homeless people, who really did not have anything and were without a future. And I knew that I would not wander forever.

My life is very different now. I have met with world leaders and given a keynote address in the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations. My disciples include high-level officials in Taiwan. I was received as a VIP in motorcades in mainland China and Thailand. I am venerated by my followers. People feel that if they don't treat me this way, it's not right, but it does not make any difference to me whether they treat me this way or not. I am famous today but tomorrow, when I can no longer do what I do now, I will be forgotten. How many people have their names remembered in history? Fame, like wealth and power, is illusionary. So a mind of equanimity is necessary in all circumstances.

There is a Chinese saying that goes: "After experiencing wealth and property, it is hard to return to poverty." This is true if you don't have a mind of equanimity. If you can maintain a mind of equanimity, you are free, no matter what the conditions.

January 22, 2009

In support of Non-Theism

Both Barbara O'Brien, in her blog writing as about.com's guide to Buddhism in Barbara's Buddhism Blog, and Philip Ryan, the primary writer of tricycle editors' blog, have written in support of UK [Manchester] Guardian columnist Ed Halliwell's post in support of non-theism.

What is non-theism? It is the Buddha's position on the whole, messy GOD question. And Buddha's position is what exactly? Writes Halliwell, "[T]hat dwelling on such a question [as whether or not God exists] is not conducive to the elimination of suffering, which was the sole purpose of his teaching."

A non-theist is not the same as an atheist. An atheist is defined as someone who denies the existence of god.

Writes Barbara,
For the most part, the Buddhist position on the God question is neither yes [theism] nor no [atheism]. Although some Buddhists consider themselves to be atheists, and some (sorta kinda) conceptualize the buddhas and bodhisattvas as godlike beings, the Buddha taught that belief in God is irrelevant [to his teachings or the dharma]. Believing in God or not believing in God will not help you realize enlightenment.
Further -- and I think Barbara is likely to agree with this -- traditional belief in God (i.e., as a Christian or Jew or Muslim) is not necessarily at odds with being Buddhist, though fitting Buddhism with other religions is always likely to have uncomfortable elements.

A "liberal" reading of the Bible (that is, seeing much of it as metaphorical and perhaps interpreting the New Testament such that Jesus is not uniquely the son of God, but a child of God as we all are supposed to be) can allow room for Buddhist practice.

I think that there certainly are believers in God who have realized enlightenment, or cosmic consciousness. Jesus, himself, being the prime example. His enlightenment is, perhaps, 'colored' by his belief in God, which causes no diminishment in the experience/achievement. Those Buddhists who have no belief system impacting their awakening experience/achieve enlightenment that is transparent.

Barbara writes that belief in God can be a upaya, a skillful means or method, for reaching enlightenment. I tend to disagree since upaya evokes the idea of intention. Most who are devoted to God will be enlightened without that being what they're after. An example here of that would be St. John of the Cross whose devout belief while being tortured by actors in the Inquisition resulted in mystical knowledge which brought him powerful insight. John of the Cross's "dark night of the soul" was unwanted, but triggered his profound awakening.

I like what Halliwell has to say about agnosticism in comparison to non-theism:
Non-theism may sound somewhat like agnosticism, and indeed contemporary Buddhist teachers such as Stephen Batchelor have adopted the agnostic label as a way of distancing themselves from those metaphysical elements of Buddhist tradition, such as rebirth and karma, that are not empirically demonstrable. However, whereas agnosticism tends to emphasise not-knowing, which results from and remains confined by the limitations of intellectual and philosophical inquiry, a non-theistic approach implies letting go of all concepts in order to go deeper into experience, creating the possibility that this might produce a more profound kind of understanding.
But ... I don't know that "letting go" of conceptions of God necessarily will (or even "might") produce a more-profound understanding. Jesus and John of the Cross did very well -- thank you very much -- as a profoundly enlightened Jew and Christian, respectively.

It is just, that for many, including a large number of Buddhists, being non-theist is the most comfortable and appropriate tag. We neither believe nor don't believe nor is ours a fitful orientation of doubt. We merely, meekly abstain.

January 13, 2009

Thank you, Steve & Ji


Great thanks to Steve & Ji for putting up with me this past weekend.

Yes, Steve & Ji took in a homeless person for the weekend -- a noble act of charity, indeed!

I certainly had a good time. If the weekend had a theme, it was round objects: pizza, bowling balls, a tire and a big bowl of Vietnamese cuisine.

While Ji was working hard earning basketsful of money Saturday night, Steve and I were entertaining the cats and gorging ourselves with an enormous Round Table pizza. We watched A League of Ordinary Gentlemen which is about a pivotal time in the Pro Bowlers Association, when it nearly collapsed in ~2003, and which profiles four bowlers that year, including Hall of Fame bowler Wayne Webb whom Steve knows rather well, who has coached Ji, and whom, like Steve, Ji and me, lives in Sacramento.

Next morning, Steve, Ji and I went to famous Fireside Lanes where, the good news is, I bowled a 260. The bad news is that that was over the course of three games. Athletic Steve beat that score in his first game -- the pins running in fear before the ball was halfway down the alley. Ji displayed her amazing bowler form and grace, threw lots of strikes and spares and finished second in all our games.

Dinner at Hoa Viet was quite excellent. I declined having a durian milk shake with my meal, a very large bowl of tasty pork, vegetables and noodles. Steve and Ji ate something similar.

At one point in our adventures, there was a flat tire. Unhappily, my expertise fixing a flat was unnecessary as Steve had AAA coverage and all types of high-tech gear at the ready to take care of the matter. Included in the high-tech arsenal was a GPS device where the 'woman' who gave directions became very rude when we intentionally left the proscibed route she'd laid out. But, a good time was had by all, later, roving the aisles at Blockbuster and Trader Joe's while the tire was replaced at Firestone.

Thank you, Steve, Ji, Tao Tao and Jai Dee for the swell weekend.

Born to be Good

A new book that I haven't seen yet and my library doesn't have yet has gotten my attention due to two reviews I read.

The book, Born to be Kind, has Confusian, rather than Buddhist, roots, but I like the idea behind it: That the best way to describe human origins is not survival of the fittest, but survival of the kindest. [I can't say that "kindness" sounds more likely to be true, but I'm hopeful.]

The author, Dacher Keltner, is on tour, promoting his book now. Below, a YouTubed statement by the writer about why he wrote his book.



Here's the review in the Jan-Feb, 2009, issue of Psychology Today:
Through his studies on facial movements, tones of voice, goosebumps, dinosaurs, and beauty, Berkeley psychologyist Keltner has forged what he calls a "new science of positive emotion." His conclusion: Human beings have evolved a set of positive emotions -- gratitude, mirth, awe and compassion -- and it is these that enable us to lead meaningful lives. The key to happiness, he says, is to let these emotions arise in ourselves and to evoke them in others. Human beings are wired to be good -- so much so, Keltner says, that the best way to describve our origins is not "survival of the fittest" but "survival of the kindest."
The second review I read was in Library Journal. Couldn't find it at their website, but did find it at Barnes & Noble.

UPDATE 1/27/09: Bill Harryman has a post on "Born to Be Good" over at Integral Options Cafe. Word of this book is spreading, and its POV is causing discussion.

UPDATE 3/3/09: There is a GREAT comprehensive review of Keltner's book in Slate, reviewed by the great Howard Gardner: "How Good Are We, Really?" At its end, the review is not altogether an endorsement of Keltner's book, since Keltner doesn't prove what he sets out to. But the book does entrigue Gardner, and me, because of what it does and can say about goodness in human beings.

Update 3/21/09: I've added two quotes from Keltner's book, related to compassion: Compassion in Born to Be Good, #1; and Compassion in Born to Be Good, #2.

January 8, 2009

The LIGHT in enLIGHTenment

During my early days as an impressionable Internet Buddhist, circa 1995, I recall a discussion in an AOL chatroom where the most sapient among us insisted that the notion of light being an important part of enlightenment was folly. Other sagacious sutra readers in the room were insistant that the term enlightenment should be abandoned altogether because it planted in our minds misdirecting ideas of what enlightenment/satori/awakening was. For years thereafter, I clung to that appraisement: Enlightenment is ineffable. For us to impose preceptions of it that give it flavor or color or feel would cause us to misidentify markers in our spiritual advancement, sending us off on muddy time-wasting slogs through the barren marshes of error.

Today, I have come to think that light is important: its rays filling the room; its beams serving as a guide to anyone's quest to eliminate suffering in the adventure of life. Hui-neng, the great C'han master, said in his Platform Sutra, "Learned audience, to what are meditation and wisdom analogous? They are analogous to a lamp and its light. With the lamp, there is light. Without it, it would be dark. The lamp is the quintessence of the light and the light is the expression of the lamp. In name they are two things, but in substance they are the same. It is the same case with meditation and wisdom."

Let us simply consider the obvious importance of nature's light to life. It seems less important to us nowadays, living in our incandescent- and florescent-lit buildings, warmed by heat coming up to us from vents in the floor, living our lives vicariously through people pretending to be real on television shows, but the sun, this round disc in the sky, regulates and is necessary for all life known to us in the universe. Its warmth and its light make the day, and when it dips below the horizon, there is nothing but life-draining night and hope for the next day's dawn, when the streets and the trees and the sky will become fully visible, again. When that eastern star pushes into view, nature wriggles from its slumber; the birds start chattering; and all the creatures come to action to feast and fly and frolic. And Shakyamuni Buddha, persistant and willful, sitting beside that Bodhi tree, realized enlightenment on seeing that morning star and thought "I and all beings on earth together attain enlightenment at the same time."

Zen Master Ejo, Dogen's disciple, in the chapter "Absorption in the Treasury of Light" in his Shobo Genzo Zuimonki wrote "Buddha said, 'This light of lights is not blue, yellow, red, white, or black. It is not matter, not mind. It is not existent, nor nonexistent. It is not a phenomenon resulting from causes. It is the source of all Buddhas, the basis of practicing the Way of enlightening beings, fundamental for all Buddhists.'"

It is only in the last one hundred years, thanks to the creative intelligence of Albert Einstein, that we have come to better understand this light whatever-it-is that pervades the universe -- Buddha's remark, quoted by Ejo, being intuitively correct, but far, far ahead of science!

People commonly misunderstand light, thinking it this hybrid thing -- part wave, part matter -- that travels at an incredible velocity, the so-called Speed of Light. But light doesn't dawdle at the Speed of Light; unimpeded, it traverses the universe instantly. It is untouched by time. It is only from the perspective of lumpy, time-bound humans that light travels at 186,000 miles/second. If it were possible to chain our wrist to a beam of light, we would be everywhere in the smallest segment of a moment. Light is indeed as Buddha described it, "not matter, not mind. It is not existent, nor nonexistent. It is not a phenomenon resulting from causes."

According to currently configured theory of everything, M Theory, a photon of light is a non-looping vibrating string, atuned to the laws of harmonics, bounded, as sentient beings are, between two impassible membranes [that bar us from other dimensions we cannot perceive], leaving us in the universe we know, existing in the three dimensions of space. While sentient beings travel a life's journey on an arrow of time, light does not. Light is not subject to time; a beam of light is immutable.

From the Tibetan Book of the Dead we are told that the first stage of the Bardo -- the Chikai, the bardo of dying -- begins at death and lasts from a half a day to four days. During this period, the dead person realizes he no longer has a body. An ecstatic experience pervades the consciousness of the departed, called the "Clear White Light." It is written that everyone gets at least a glimpse of this light, but that the more spiritually advanced will see it longer and go beyond to a higher level. An average person will drop into a lesser state, the secondary "clear light."

It is believed that the "Clear White Light" is the light from all enlightened ones, indistinguishable from everyone's true essence. Ejo wrote something parallel regarding the treasury of light: "[It] is the root source of all Buddhas, the inherent being of all living creatures, the total substance of all phenomena, the treasury of the great light of spiritual powers of complete awareness. The three bodies [mind belonging to the Arhats, Pratyekabuddhas, and Bodhisattvas], four knowledges [realizing their liberation], and states of absorption [in mystic or meditative union with ecstacy] numerous as atoms in every aspect of reality, all appear from within this."

Those who have had a near-death experience describe something just like the "Clear White Light," and have other experiences which track and seem to validate the stages of the bardo described in the Book of the Dead.

This is written about Amitabha Buddha: "The splendor of His brilliant light is beyond mind. The light of His brows illuminates a hundred worlds. His eyes are pure brilliant light, limitless like the oceans. In Amitabha's realm of infinite light, all beings are transformed And Enlightened into countless Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. His Forty Eight Vows ensure our liberation In Nine Lotus Stages we reach the ultimate shore of Enlightenment. Homage to the Buddha of the Pure Land, Compassionate Amitabha Buddha."

Near the end of "Absorption in the Treasury of the Light," Ejo wrote:

This is the light in which the ordinary and the sage, the deluded and the enlightened, are one suchness. Even in the midst of activity, it is not hindered by activity. The forest and the flowers, the grasses and the leaves, people and animals, great and small, long and short, square and round, all appear at once, without depending on the discrimination of your thoughts and attention.. This is manifest proof that the light is not obstructed by activity. It is empty luminosity spontaneously shining without exerting mental energy.

This light has never had any place of abode. Even when buddhas appear in the world, it does not appear in the world. Even though they enter nirvana, it does not enter nirvana. When you are born, the light is not born. When you die, the light is not extinguished. It is not more in Buddhas and not less in ordinary beings. It is not lost in confusion, not awakened by enlightenment. It has no location, no appearance, no name. It is the totality of everything. It cannot be grasped, cannot be rejected, cannot be attained. While unattainable, it is in effect throughout the entire being. From the highest heaven above to the lowest hell below, it is thus completely clear, a wondrously inconceivable spiritual light.

If you believe and accept this mystic message, you do not need to ask anyone else whether it is true or false; it will be like meeting your father in the middle of town. Do not petition other teachers for a seal of approval, and do not be eager to be given a prediction and realize fruition.

Finally, this from Ken Wilber in Boomeritis [Note, the first three short sentences are a riff from Dōgen's "Genjōkōan"]:

To study enlightenment is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be one with all things. To be one with all things is timeless enlightenment. And this timeless enlightenment continues forever, it is a ceaseless process, absolutely perfect, and fully complete at every moment of its being, yet also unfolding endlessly ...

January 6, 2009

"Groundhog Day" named One of the Ten Best Movies EVER

There are two types of people in this world: those that love Groundhog Day, and those that can't appreciate it. Our job is to exterminate the latter group. -- Adum Miller, webmaster GHD Home Page
The Great Stanley Fish, a frequent contributor to the N. Y. Times, has named "Groundhog Day" as one of his ten favorite movies of all time in an article, "The 10 Best American Movies," published a couple days ago in the Times online. "Groundhog Day," released on the Groundhog holiday, 2/2/1993, is the most-recent of the ten films Fish named.

"Groundhog Day" is the favorite of a great many Buddhists because of the storyline of the movie where the protagonist overcomes his egomaniacal suffering as a result of assimilating to a 24-hour time loop he finds himself trapped in. Other religious faiths also claim the movie as sending a message of their creed about how a person can become better or more spiritual.

Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, the overbearing protagonist, a TV weatherman sent to cover festivities of February 2, in celebration of Groundhog Day, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Andie MacDowell plays Rita, his producer and romantic interest. And the great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky plays Ned Ryerson, an aggressive life-insurance salesman who once dated Phil's sister.

I fell in love with the movie the first time I saw it and subsequently wrote about it. First, in about 1995 for now-defunct edarma magazine, calling Groundhog Day the greatest Buddhist movie. Then I wrote something for now-sleeping Zen Unbound , "Groundhog Day and the Cosmic Sense," matching Phil's development to levels of cosmic-conscious achievement. Lastly, I wrote a piece called "The Ned Ryerson Conundrum" which was read by Richard Henzel, who voiced a radio DJ in the movie, at the Groundhog Day Breakfast in Woodstock, Il. -- where the movie was filmed -- in celebration of the fifth aniversary of the film's release [i.e., on 2/2/98]. [Is my pride showing?]

My writing has been "disappeared" by my very very very very evil sister who has stolen almost all my belongings, including two laptops and my inheritance of about $100,000, leaving me in abject poverty. Phil Connors isn't the only guy to have problems.

There are, however, two particularly splendid recent pieces about Groundhog Day written by premier buddhobloggers that I am honored to cite: "Groundhog Day, Samsara and Salt" written by the noble Kyle Lovett for Progressive Buddhism; and "Don't Drive Angry..." by the revered, revealing and revolutionary Rev. Danny Fisher for his eponymous blog.

Kyle writes that GD is "[o]ne of [his] favorite movies of all time," even before he was buddhafied. Dano tops that, writing that it's his "favorite 'Buddhist film.'" YOU GO, guys!

Here a snip from Kyle's bodacious and deep essay:
Today, some Buddhist's point to this movie as an example of Samsara, and some temples even have screenings every February 2nd. But what is Samsara and what does Groundhog Day have to do with it? Samsara has been translated into a few different types of meanings in the Buddhist tradition, depending greatly on who you hear it from. However, loosely speaking, Samsara is this wheel of life we are on, these ups and down and endless cycles and perhaps we can even say it stands in opposition of Nirvana.
And here some fine words from the remarkable remarking reverand's piece:
The Buddha once said, "I teach only suffering and its end." To my thinking, if ever there was a film that taught that same material exactly, it's Groundhog Day. Phil Connors, the sour protagonist portrayed by Bill Murray (in what Time Magazine's Richard Corliss very rightly calls one of the great screen performances of all time), slowly comes to grips with the reality of suffering and discovers a way to relate to it that leads to an unexpected peace.
Wow! Good stuff, eh? Who wouldn't want to spend eternity reading and rereading these guys' essays!?

But wait! What's this!? A blogpost by the revolting reverand revealing he reviles Groundhog Day!!! In his Sept 2008 post, "A list of films about Buddhism," Daniel LEAVES GROUNDHOG DAY OFF THE LIST OF 60 FILMS! And where is Ikiru? Man, Dano. Asleep at the wheel!?

Update #1 [1/9/09] I take back my pretend criticism of Danny Fisher's list of films about Buddhism. Indeed, only movies that are overtly about Buddhism should be on the list. The problem with Groundhog Day (and the Matrix) are that they try to be pluralistically religious. Both GHD & Matrix are "claimed" by Christians, as indeed the screenwriters intended. Both GHD & Matrix have symbolism that is meant to attract various religions. Nonetheless, GHD tracts mostly with mayajana Buddhist belief with its ego-diminishment message.

Update #2 [1/9/09] EeeHa. I found all of my old Groundhog Day writing on the Internet archives [i.e., the Wayback Machine] "The Greatest Buddhism Movie Ever Made!," found in the Zen Unbound [when it was on AOL] archives. The article first appeared in edharma. Then there is "On the Trail of the Groundhog," an early version of "Groundhog Day and the Cosmic Sense." And, finally, "The Ned Ryerson Conundrum." Now that Blogger allows for post-dated entries, I will very likely update all three articles and schedule them for a 2/2/09 publication in this blog.