Friday, December 19, 2008

SHUKKE and THE MONTY HALL DILEMMA (or DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB!)


First the administrative stuff:

Tomorrow, Dec. 20, 2008 we’ll have our all-day Zen thing at Hill Street Center (details at link to your left). There will be no prepared lunch this time. I’ll be having a peanut butter sandwich at HSC. Others are welcome to join me. But bring your own sandwiches.

Also, I have updated my tour dates (link also to your left). If you want me to come to your town, please write me at spoozilla@gmail.com and we’ll try to work it out. I will have a lot of available dates (see below for details on that).

Now the article:

Shukke (spelled 出家 in Chinese characters) means leaving home and family. In the olden days, Buddhists monks literally left everything behind when they joined the order. These days the word shukke mainly refers to a ceremony that symbolically represents that act, although the monks themselves often continue to live as they did before.

Different lineages of Buddhism handle it in different ways. I’ve heard that in Thailand the custom is that one literally leaves home and family for a time but then comes back after a proscribed period. Sort of like doing a tour of duty in the armed forces. In Japanese-style Zen, though, it’s pretty rare to actually leave everything behind.

Whatever. I’m bringing it up today because yesterday I left my family of 14 years. For the past year I’ve been in a state of limbo with the Japanese monster movie company that sent me to Los Angeles to be their liaison. I got laid off at the end of 2007. But at the beginning of 2008 they said they wanted me back to work on a film project in the USA and so I began working for them again in a limited capacity. That film project never quite got off the ground. In September I went and met with them and they asked me to come back to Japan to do essentially the same job I used to do when I last lived there.

But I wasn’t really interested in doing that job again and, as much as I love Japan, I didn’t really feel like moving back there. Everybody keeps saying how the US economy is falling to pieces and I was being offered a relatively secure job with a steady paycheck at a stable company in a country where the economy was not going down the drain. So I thought hard about whether I ought to take the job or not.

This week I finally gave them my answer. I said no thank you in as polite a way as possible. They accepted and now I’m a free man. That company was very much like a family to me and leaving them was not easy. The photo I posted above was staged spontaneously by a bunch of guys from the Events Dept. as a surprise going-away gift in 2004 when I was just about to leave for LA. That's my family.

It was also a tough decision to make because the most rational, sensible course of action would have been to go to Japan. Try as I might I couldn’t make it add up any other way. I’m making a little bit of money off book sales. But if you average out what I get paid for a book compared to how long it takes to write one, my annual wage from writing is not impressive at all. I know there are professional authors whose sales are less than Eckhart Tolle’s and Deepak Chopra’s but who manage somehow. But I don’t know how. Guess I’ll find out.

It was a classic example of the Monty Hall Dilemma. Actually I didn’t even know there was such a thing as the Monty Hall Dilemma until I did a Google search just now. I was trying to remember the name of the game show hosted by Monty Hall in which contestants were given a choice between say, a year’s supply of Turtle Wax and whatever was behind door number three, which could have been something better than the Turtle Wax, like a brand new car, or could have been a bail of hay or a goat or something. Turns out the show was called Let’s Make a Deal. I can’t believe I wasted several hours of my precious and fleeting life watching Let’s Make a Deal. But I suppose it did me some good after all.

ANYWAY, the thing was that even though my rational mind told me the best way to go was to take the job in Japan, my instincts told me otherwise. And it wasn’t just my own rational mind that said it was a bad idea to turn down the job in Japan either. Everyone I spoke to about the matter, including two Zen teachers, told me the most sensible course of action was to go to Japan.

But in the end I made the irrational choice. Actually, though, I wouldn’t call it irrational. I’d call it intuitive. Intuition isn’t really irrational. It has its own sense.

Have I made the right choice? Who knows? Not me. When faced with decisions like these we never really know what the “right choice” is. I’m not even sure the concept of there being a right choice is very sound to begin with.

In Buddhism we always say that when you’re faced with a decision, the true way to go appears instantly. But we’re so locked into our thinking mind that we can miss it very easily. Still, once you’ve made your choice the only thing you can do is find a way to make that choice work.

In spite of everything, I feel good about this. It’s a bit of a test, though. I always say that the universe takes care of you. I believe that. Now I’ll get to see if it’s true.

It's kinda doubly weird for me. Because I've seen through things to the degree that I understand clearly that the universe isn't what most people say it is and does not operate in at all the way most people think it does. Yet the power of what most people think is very strong. You should never underestimate it. (This is one of about a million things wrong with the whole "let's get an Enlightenment Experience right this minute" mindset, by the way. But that's a whole 'nother article. Maybe a book.)

Join me on these pages in the following months and together we can all see how it goes…

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

FINLAND and the good ol' USA

I'm going to Finland! August 24 - 30, 2009 I'll be doing a bunch of talks and zazen things in Finland. I'll be in Jyväskylä and Helsinki and probably a few other places. I don't have specific dates yet. But I'll post them when I get them. If you're on Facebook, they've set up a group about the trip. So go join up. Info is posted in Finnish and English.

I know there are readers in other parts of Europe who've asked me to come out to speak in your countries. Now's your chance. Since I'll be in Europe anyhow, I can arrange to make it to other places while I'm over there.

The only possible conflicting dates around that time as of this writing are

August 6 - 15 Great Sky Sesshin, Eitzen, Minnesota
September 19 - 22 (tentative) Dogen Sangha Retreat, Shizuoka, Japan

If you have any ideas of arranging stuff that doesn't bump into those dates, please send me an e-mail at spoozilla@gmail.com.

Please bear in mind I am a one-man show. I have no staff to set these kinds of things up and I am terrible beyond any definition of terrible you can possibly come up with at organization and scheduling. So if you want to do this, you'll need to set things up. Also keep in mind that I am not independently wealthy. So you'll need to figure out how to finance the thing. But I will take any serious plan seriously.

And for those of you in the USA, I'll be doing a book tour this year and am on the look-out for places to come and speak. Here are the dates so far.

Bodhi Tree Bookstore - Los Angeles, CA - Thursday March 12, 2009

Favors.Org - Event - Bay Area, CA (location TBD) - Thursday March 19, 2009
SF Zen Center - Event - San Francisco, Friday March 20, 2009
Green Apple Books - San Francisco, CA - Author Event - Saturday March 21, 2009 - 4 pm
Copperfield's Books - Petaluma, CA - Author Event - Sunday March 22, 2009 - 1:30 pm

Interdependence Project - New York, NY - Wednesday March 25, 2009

Southern Dharma Retreat Center - Asheville, North Carolina - April 2 - 5, 2009

Same deal goes for gigs in the US as in Europe.

I promise I won't monopolize the blog with tour dates. But for now it's the only place I have to announce these things. I'm gonna be working on that as well.

For now I've added a link with all the dates on it over there to your left.

Monday, December 15, 2008

NEW SUICIDE GIRLS ARTICLE: YOU CELIBATE I'LL BUY A BIT!

I got a new Suicide Girls article up right now. Go look.

According to the press the Dalai Lama said sex invariably spells trouble. Actually what he said (in part) was, "Sexual pleasure, sexual desire, actually I think is short period satisfaction and often, that leads to more complication. Too much attachment towards your children, towards your partner (is) one of the obstacle or hindrance of peace of mind." He also said celibacy was good. This made the news. So I wrote about that.

See ya!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL, ALTBOOK BAZAAR in BURBANK Dec. 13th 6-9PM (free booze)

The current issue of Maximum Rocknroll (#308, January 2009), one of the longest running and coolest punk rock magazines has an interview with me on the subject of my movie Cleveland's Screaming!. So go out and get a copy today. It's just four bucks and the rest of the magazine is pretty groovy. Look for "Cleveland's Screaming" right on the front cover!

Also, I will be at the ALTBOOK BAZAAR at the Wax Poetic Gallery at 3208 West Magnolia Blvd. in Burbank, California this Saturday December 13th, 2008 from 6-9 PM. They'll have free food and free drinks and you can meet a whole slew of local authors including my fellow Suicide Girls columnist Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna (aka Miss Truth Hurts). So come on down! No zazen required.

But if you want some zazen first, we'll be having the usual zazen at Hill Street Center that day. See the link over there on your left for details.

I'm writing my latest Suicide Girls column, which will go live on Monday morning. So I gotta run off and do that.

I hope to see a few of you at the ALTBOOK BAZAAR, though.

Bye!

ADDENDUM 12/11/08

Do I have any readers in Portland? If so, please write me at spoozilla@gmail.com and put "Portland" somewhere in the subject line.

Monday, December 08, 2008

ROHATSU, FORRY, BEVERLY and KOICHI


Today is December 8th, notable to me for three reasons. 1) It's traditionally celebrated as the day Buddha attained Enlightenment, 2) it's the day John Lennon died and 3) it's the day the Japanese think of as Pearl Harbor Day (because of the international dateline, the attack occurred on the 8th in Japanese time, not the 7th).

Unfortunately, instead of a happy post commemorating Buddha's Enlightenment Day -- and the final day of Rohatsu Sesshins all over the world, I have to post some important (to me) obituaries. I put a longer and more complete version of these up on Suicide Girls. But I want to mention them on this page too.

On December 4th Forrest J. Ackerman, founder and first publisher of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland passed away in his home in Horrorwood, Karloffornia. He was 92.

The following day, December 5th, the world lost Beverly Garland, the one person who stood up to the horrifying Venusian walking cucumber in Roger Corman's cult classic It Conquered the World -- and in a tight sweater (hubba-hubba), no less!

These two have been covered in a number of other news sources and I have complete obits for them up on Suicide Girls. Here I want to talk about another recent death.

On November 30th, Koichi Takano passed away in his home in Tokyo, Japan. Although Takano's name isn't nearly as well-known as either Ackerman's or Garland's, to me his loss is much more personal. He used to be my boss. Takano was a special effects director who was initially hired in the 1950's by Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects director of the classic Godzilla films. After Takano had worked in the background on a number of Godzilla pictures, Tsuburaya hand-picked him to direct the effects for his groundbreaking television series Ultraman. Takano continued to direct special effects for hundreds of science fiction and superhero television shows and theatrical films until complications from emphysema forced him to retire five years ago. Takano continued to appear in lots of documentaries and making-of TV shows and specials to talk about his legendary effects work. Some dopes in this country have derided his work as cheezy -- his preferred method for depicting a city-smashing monster was to put a stuntman into a fat rubber dinosaur costume and have him stomp on a miniature replica of Tokyo. But just try finding example of special effects work done in the US on a similar budget and time frame that is anywhere near as meticulous, detailed and just plain cool as what Takano accomplished!


The photo on the top of this entry is one I took of Koichi Takano along with actress Mariya Yamada at the wrap party for the TV series Ultraman Dyna at the Akasaka Prince Hotel on August 11, 1998. Mariya played Agent Mai of the Super GUTS team, the people who would try every week to destroy whatever monster attacked Tokyo and fail misreably until Ultraman Dyna came along and helped them out. Takano was the special effects supervisor on the series.

I have another photo of me and Takano on a bench at some hotel waiting for a bus. It was on a company trip. We'd both been up really late the night before and Takano had been drinking too (I hadn't). In the photo I'm the one who looks hung over and he's all bright and chipper and ready to go. Alas, I cannot find that picture.

All three of these legends will be missed.

Friday, December 05, 2008

ZEN BOOKS THAT DON'T SUCK

I put a new page up about zen books that don’t suck. It'll be a permanent link on this page. I did that for two reasons. One was that people keep asking me for recommendations on what to read. I don’t intend for this to be a comprehensive list of the good Zen books. There are a bunch I forgot that I’ll probably put up there someday, like Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen: Love and Workand a few others.

I tend to avoid answering questions about what books to read because certain people think that Zen can be understood by reading about it. But it really can’t. And yet, good books can be an important part of practice. Which is the second reason I put that page up there.

I remember early on in my study of Zen I read some book — maybe it was Buddha is the Center of Gravity by Joshu Sasaki, maybe it was someone else — anyway, this Zen teacher recommended his students to read a lot of good books. “What books are good?” his students asked. He said something like, “books that have stood the test of time.” That’s a pretty good answer. You can’t go too wrong with stuff like Shobogenzo or the Heart Sutra or the Lotus Sutra or the recorded talks of Buddha. Books like that have been around long enough that they’ve garnered a certain degree of trust. In some cases the original words themselves have been changed by later copyists and, in many cases, significantly improved in the process.

Modern books are trickier. Trends come and go. Some writers are very good at hooking into the mindset of the times and making something that sounds pretty “spiritual” when it’s really just trash.

I’ve told this story before. But once a few years ago someone wrote me and recommended some modern spiritual master’s books, which he said were “so stilling, so present.” I read some of the stuff and, indeed, I did feel the quality this guy had described as “stilling.” But I also found myself becoming kind of envious of that teacher’s amazing experiences and feeling that I was somehow inadequate because I wasn’t as “high” as this teacher wanted me to think he, the teacher, was. There was something very wrong. There are lots of “stilling” books out there. But many of them are also trying to sell you something.

I started thinking hard about books and how they fit into practice when I recently took a job as a freelance copy editor for a Japanese publisher of New Age books. I know. It sounds pretty much like selling out. But all they wanted was someone who could fix up these books so that the rough English translations matched the original Japanese. What I found, though, was that the authors could be very persuasive and that some of their often rather warped worldview began creeping into mine. One of these authors said that the Heart Sutra was full of evil Taoist spells and that chanting it could be dangerous. For about 2.7 seconds I found myself wondering if he could be right. Uh oh, I said…

Then when I was driving back from San Francisco I heard this radio show all about the first and second performances of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Apparently at the first performance the audience rioted. The guy who talked about this theorized that the piece was so dissonant and atonal that it screwed with people’s brains. Their brains were trying so hard to deal with sound that to them sounded disorganized that they just went temporarily crazy. A year later the piece was performed again. But this time the audience was prepared for it and they just sat peacefully and applauded at the end. Twenty odd years later the same piece of music appeared in Disney’s Fantasia , a family film for children. Kind of reminded me of what’s happened to punk rock over the past twenty years.

This got me thinking about how these kinds of stimuli can affect us. Certainly reading a book like Shobogenzo can actually alter a person’s perception of reality. Science fiction author Philip K. Dick talked about this and even experimented with it in his own books. Reading something like his books Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritchor Time Out of Jointwas as jolting to me as a teenager as any acid trip. Maybe more so. Later on Shobogenzo affected me in a very profound way as well. Of course, Dick was a paranoid amphetamine addict and Dogen was not, which also makes a huge difference. Dick had insights, but didn't really know what to make of them.

Dogen warned against romanticizing old Zen stories where people suddenly burn all their books and devote themselves just to zazen. To Dogen these examples might have been right for those people, but that approach couldn’t be applied universally. Reading and listening to teachers does have a place in practice. It’s only when things get out of balance that there’s a problem, like when you get too into reading and listening to teachers or, conversely, too into practice alone. People who get into a teacherless Zen practice often get way too full of themselves because the ego will grab hold of absolutely anything to enrich its position, including glimpses of its own unreality. Ironic, but true.

Anyway, all of this bullshit is just to say that good books can be good for Zen practice.

Happy reading!

Monday, December 01, 2008

POLITICS

Before going on I want to mention the new link I put up about Zen books that don't suck. People keep asking me about this. So here you go.

While I was up north for Thanksgiving I stopped by the Berkeley Zen Center where my friend Greg Fain, who kindly let me stay in his pad while I was up there, was giving the weekly Dharma talk. His talk was, among other things, about the issue of speaking about politics from the "pulpit" -- if we can use that word to describe the seat from which Buddhist teachers deliver their talks.

I was a little worried because I knew that Greg had spent some time in Nevada getting out the vote on behalf of a certain candidate I won't name here. And this was, after all, the People's Republic of Berkeley. As some of you must have noticed by now I'm pretty down on the idea of Buddhism being used as a pretext for pushing liberal politics and on the widespread assumption that anyone who is a Buddhist must, of course, be at the very least a Democrat if not someone of a much more left-leaning political mindset. While I didn't really imagine Greg would use his Dharma talk as a campaign platform, especially after the election was finished, I did fear for the worst.

I should have had more faith! Greg's talk was a very good one about how a Dharma talk should never be a platform for political campaigning. He related a story about how he was giving a talk in Nevada (I think). Before he went on, the head of the temple warned him, "Don't talk about politics here! This group is evenly divided between 'red state' people and 'blue state' people." Greg said he hadn't planned to get political but that he appreciated the advice. He said he thought we as Buddhist teachers should always assume our audience is half 'red state' (conservatives, for those of you reading this outside the USA) and half 'blue state' (liberals). I'd take that further myself. I don't even assume my audience cares about or even knows much about America's politics. A decade in Japan taught me a lot about just how trivial American politics really are to people who don't live here.

Back on October 25th, my hero, Gene Simmons, bassist of the rock band KISS, posted this on his website:

Ok, folks. Everyone is so touchy about the forthcoming election. And for the record, I don't believe any celebrity should be using their bully pulpit to coerce their fans to vote either way. I refuse to tell anyone what my political leanings are. I agree with both parties on certain issues and strongly disagree with both candidates on other issues. VOTE FOR EITHER CANDIDATE, but vote.

Yet around the same time someone sent me a video of some Zen teacher giving his Dharma talk in an Obama T-shirt. It's truly pathetic when Zen teachers aren't even as enlightened as Gene Simmons on such matters. I don't pay enough attention to the Zen scene to know whether there are more teachers like Greg or more teachers like that guy who thought his Dharma talk was an appropriate place to plug his favorite candidate.

We Buddhist teachers must never assume that our political views are one and the same as the Dharma, nor should we try and influence the people who listen to us on how to vote.

Greg talked about social justice, about the recently passed California Proposition 9 (not 8!) and how it affected the inmates he teaches at San Quentin prison. He talked about the uncomfortable mood at a post election party he attended and how it was all "We won and they lost!" I could certainly feel that myself driving through Los Angeles on the night of November 4th. There was such a tremendous buzz of negative energy in the air that I wanted to get off the road as quickly as possible. Ironically most of those responsible for that nearly palpable wave of horrible negativity almost certainly believed it was nothing but positivity (actually the two are the same, ultimately) (and just by the way, I don't mean that I somehow psychically sensed this stuff. There was all kinds of shouting and hooting and horns honking and vehicles swerving like the drivers were drunk) .

Greg also talked about engaged Buddhism. All Buddhism, he said (quoting someone I can't remember), is "engaged Buddhism." I think this is important. How do you work most effectively for social justice? You do zazen practice every day. You. Not someone else. Every day. Not just when your sitting group meets. This is where the real work for social justice happens. Without it you're just making noise.