Sunday, August 16, 2009


I arrived this morning at 9:30 in Frankfurt, Germany after eight days in the back woods of Minnesota. The photo I put up here is the view I saw for most of those eight days. Literally. The schedule included nine 40-minute periods of zazen per day, beginning at 5 AM and ending at 8:50 PM. And that board was what I looked at. See if you can spot the images of Johnny Ramone and the words "Brachiosaurus," "Pepper" and "Znorft" in the grain of the wood. I did!

Speaking of Brachiosaurus, the Chicago O'Hare Airport has a gigundous skeleton of one in Terminal 2 (I think it was 2). Who'd have thunk? That was pretty cool.

ANYWAY, this was my third Great Sky Sesshin and one of the most funnest. Minnesota hospitality is warm and bendy. The Great Sky was especially great this year with the Leonid Meteor Shower. I spotted a few big ones. Also lightning bugs, which they don't have in California. It's nice to see them again.

The experience of a sesshin is probably the exact opposite of the experience of looking at the Internet. When I opened up my computer for the first time in a week I saw there were something like 270-some comments on my last post! You guys have been busy.

I suppose I was busy too. But in a very different way. Dokai Georgeson, the resident monk and abbot of Hokyoji, where Great Sky is held, gave a talk about, among other things, that old saw horse Faith Mind Inscription by the Third Patriarch of Zen in China. That's the one that goes, "The Great Way is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing." It's funny how you can hear something a few dozen times over the course of a few dozen years and just barely get it, but then someone says it just once more and it falls into place. Then it slips away again.

Rosan Yoshida gave a really good talk in which he came up with a really neat-o way of explaining Dogen's old adage that practice and enlightenment were one and the same. He talked about mountain climbing. It's hard work to climb a mountain. Lots of physical strain and sweat. If you just wanted to know what things looked like at the top you could rent a video. But it's not at all the same thing as climbing the mountain yourself. In a very real way climbing the mountain and reaching the top are not two distinct activities. And climbing back down is also a necessary part of the process.

I thought that was kind of nice.

We're going to Hamburg tomorrow. I'm gonna look for the Kaiserkeller and the Star Club.


gniz said...

i guess i'll do the whole "1st" thing....

also, yes Brad, we have been busy posting here...someone's gotta keep this blog alive and entertaining while you're off staring at walls for 7 days

dan said...

Dann mal herzlich willkommen hier bei uns :-) Das Wetter sollte aktuell auch in Hamburg passen. Viele Grüße aus der Nähe von Frankfurt

element said...

Hi Brad,

Welcome to Germany!

Cool that you made it over to this ... äh ... country.
Hope you enjoy it, Hamburg should be nice for you.

See you in Frankfurt

Anonymous said...

Please consider doing dino cartoons

RDeWald said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RDeWald said...

Ok, I'll try again with a comment that both uses English words and is in English:

You had wood grain to look at? Cheater! The image is not Joey Ramone, it's Howard Stern.

Martyn said...

I think it was the Perseid meteor shower you saw. The Leonid's aren't until November.

amanda said...

All I ever see in the wall are dicks and titties. And just last week, I decided I wanted a brachiosaurus as a pet. Zazen is turning me into a nine-year-old boy.

nicole said...

Funny... I'm reading the Great Sky Sesshin part of your book. Huh.

Jinzang said...

The experience of a sesshin is probably the exact opposite of the experience of looking at the Internet.

I spend my time on the Internet thinking about meditation practice and my meditation practice thinking about what I'll write on the Internet.

Jinzang said...

Just last week, I decided I wanted a brachiosaurus as a pet.

I'd reconsider. Cleaning up after a brachiosaurus when you walk them is murder.

Ryan Wach said...

The picture of the wood grain says 2003...

brachiosaurus said...

The once great dinosaur era had come to an end. As these incredible animals disappear from the face of the earth, many of the tree ferns and cone-bearing plants they depended on for food also vanished. Many of the once prolific gymnosperm species (such as cycads) were already replaced by a rich flora of flowering plants, including magnolias, figs, breadfruit, palms, oak, willow, ash and maple. Brachiosaurus weighed 30 to 50 tons, and consumed literally tons of vegetation in a week. It would have consumed nearly a quarter of a ton of conifer and cycad food each day. According to R.M. Alexander (Dynamics of Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Giants, 1989), fossil stomach contents of giant sauropods have been discovered with fragments of woody twigs up to one centimeter in diameter. Large, worn pebbles have also been found near the remains of these huge dinosaurs, suggesting that they swallowed stones and kept them in their stomachs to grind up vegetation (like plant-eating birds).

When flowering plants began to dominate the landscape, they edged out the conifers, tree ferns and cycads that the long-established sauropods depended on.

Rich said...

"The Great Way is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing"

That is what I needed to hear. The last several days I've been wrestling with a choosing.

Anonymous said...

love the mountain climbing analogy, especially the part about having to come back down and not expect to stay in those "peak" experiences, so-called anyway. it's all the peak.


Jeff Wood said...

Just wanted to post and say your books have made definitive change in my outlook on the world and life. Zen concepts I was having difficult wrapping my head around seem a bit clearer now. Your method of cutting through the fog and getting to heart of the matter is exactly what I needed.

My interest in Buddhism started about 3 years ago and since that time I have been sporadically practicing zazen. Thanks to your books I now practice twice daily, and usually hate it, but I do see the benefits of long term practice.

Next time your in the Southern US I'm going to attend and shake your hand so I can thank you face to face.

Thank you again very much and I look forward to your next literary endeavor. Keep up the good work. If you can get through to an old peace punk like myself and help me find the middle way, you have got to be doing what the Buddha intended when he started this way of living and teaching.

--Jeff Wood
Drowning Creek Studio

Steve said...

Mea bad, not Brad's...I always think the Leonids are in August because we're in Leo but actually they're called the Leonids because they seem to come out of constellation Leo and that meteor is in November no August.

Similarly, the Perseids appear to radiate out of the constellation Perseus and they are, of course, the meteor show we witnessed.

See what happens when you get away from the Internets?

alan said...

I've got a rather long winded question that I've been curious about for some time. It centers around this : can you name any Buddhist who is famous for anything other than being a Buddhist?

(and as far as I know Leonard Cohen and the Beastie Boy guy came to Buddhism after their fame)

The meta question is this: despite Buddhisms claim to be a philosophy(?) of action, I don't see much dramatic action.

Where are the famous Buddist scientists, doctors, politicians etc?

I keep thinking of Alexander Fleming, who invented penicillin, which did more to eliminate real pain and suffering than a city of meditating monks.

My thought experiment is, if Fleming had been sitting zazen for a hour everyday, would he ever gotten around to finding antibiotics? Or just started attending more sesshins to save all sentient beings?

No way to know, but I wonder.

It gets very close to the whole suffering artist archetype (which I hate), but does suffering get the human race off its collective ass and doing something about it?

And zazen is nothing (from the physical point of view) but sitting on your ass.

I've also noticed that people, myself included, that start sitting on a regular basis, slowly start sitting more and more.

Could be seen as the actions of an addict, no?

Mr. Reee said...

"can you name any Buddhist who is famous for anything other than being a Buddhist"

Well, let's see...

#1. Gary Snyder
#2. Alice Walker
#3. Gene Vincent

Bob Keeshan should probably be on that list too... but I don't know if he was a B'ist. If not, he should have been.

Jinzang said...

Where are the famous Buddist scientists, doctors, politicians etc?

Asia? Buddhism in the West is a convert religion, meaning that people come to it in their adulthood, usually after their career path is established.

Does suffering get the human race off its collective ass and doing something about it?

From what I've observed, more creative people are pulled by their ideals than pushed by their problems. Haven't you broken up with a girlfriend? Did it help your job performance?

Could be seen as the actions of an addict, no?

Usually you start off meditating for a short time, build up, and then level off at something that works for you. The behavior is only addictive if you're using it to avoid confronting something. This does happen, but is not the most usual case.

Jinzang said...

If Fleming had been sitting zazen for a hour everyday, would he ever gotten around to finding antibiotics?

Well, if the choice is between sitting and curing cancer, I'd say skip the sitting and get into the lab. But most of us aren't faced with this dilemma.

Sitting does help and is much needed in the West. It's the yin to the West's aggressive extroverted yang.

amanda said...

Just a note about my personal experience with zazen:I really feel my notions about the way things "should be" and the way things "are" beginning to drop away.

No revolution in our conception of the world is ever possible when we are attached to conventional ideas about the way things work. I have little doubt that zazen makes physicists better physicists, doctors better doctors, teachers better teachers, etc. for precisely this reason.

You miss the point when you view zazen from the physical point of view (Form is emptiness...). That's at least my perspective as a Zen neophyte.


Anonymous said...

Brad or anyone, I've been curious about this for some time. Brad's sesshin schedule was for nine 40-minute periods of zazen per day. What is the idea behind all day sittings? Why is so much intensive sitting better than just everyday moderate amounts? This seems counter to middle way thinking.

gniz said...

Alan's question absolutely floored me...the notion that Buddhism may have created thousands upon thousands of people that sit but simply dont "do" all that much in terms of real world accomplishments. A few do come to mind, like the prison zen programs, etc.

But if you asked if there were any athletes that were also known for contributing significantly to society, i could name dozens...Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Muhammed Ali, etc.

Are you telling me that professional athletes have contributed more visibly then any well-known Buddhist? My hunch would be yes, and i think thats a rather frightening indictment of the religion, if true.

Anonymous said...

"Can you name any Buddhist who is famous for anything other than being a Buddhist?"

Ken Wilber is famous for being a douchebag.

Anonymous said...

Any chance I had at earning a Nobel Prize
for the advancement of knowledge and the
amelioration of human suffering has been
completely shot by the time and energy I
have wasted pursuing Buddhism. Maybe if
the life extension folks are able to buy
me a little more time, I'll be able to
accomplish something that benefits others
before I kick the bucket. But often, I
wish I had never heard of Zen -- so far,
I'd honestly have to say I was robbed.
(At least, I could have learned to play
a musical instrument :(

(I hope others have better luck with their
zazen than I ;)

Anonymous said...

whodunnit haiku...

things I space out on
while staring at the blank wall
please make it stop now

Anonymous said...

'The experience of a sesshin is probably the exact opposite of the experience of looking at the Internet'

Nine 40-minute periods of zazen

270-some comments

Seems like it's all about the numbers to me so maybe not so different after all?

Anonymous said...

Gniz said, "Alan's question absolutely floored me...the notion that Buddhism may have created thousands upon thousands of people that sit but simply don't "do" all that much in terms of real world accomplishments."

"a rather frightening indictment of the religion."

Hey Gniz, Arguably the greatest athlete in the USA is a Buddhist, Tiger Woods.. Just because someone isn't on your radar doesn't mean they don't exist. You embarrass yourself with your assumptions.

Anonymous said...

I've met so many people who are going through difficult times and who have found great relief in reading books by pema chodron, thich naht hanh, and the dalai lama. Not only have they experienced relief, but they have acted in ways to make life a little easier for other people. I'm sure Brads books have had the same effect on many, and there are many other good teacher authors. The authors are big heros, and the readers who act with even 1% more compassion are heroes too. What does this have to do with winning a tournement?

Anonymous said...

From "The Battle For Your Mind" by Dick Sutphen:


The second thought stopping technique is meditation. If you spend an hour to an hour and a half a day in meditation, after a few weeks, there is a great probability that you will not return to full beta consciousness. You will remain in a fixed state of alpha for as long as you continue to meditate. I'm not saying this is bad--if you do it yourself. It may be very beneficial. But it is a fact that you are causing your mind to go flat. I've worked with meditators on an EEG machine and the results are conclusive: the more you meditate, the flatter your mind becomes until, eventually and especially if used to excess or in combination with decognition, all thought ceases. Some spiritual groups see this as nirvana--which is bullshit. It is simply a predictable physiological result. And if heaven on earth is non-thinking and non-involvement, I really question why we are here.

gniz said...

"Hey Gniz, Arguably the greatest athlete in the USA is a Buddhist, Tiger Woods"

Your sort of missed my point--although a man of Tiger Woods' accomplishments is good to hear.

I was talking about athletes that also had contributed significantly to society outside of their sport--such as Billie Jean King who has been a women's rights activist, or Muhammed Ali (protesting viet nam), a significant scientific accomplishment, etc.

Still, Tiger Woods has clearly "done something" in the real world which is nice to see. Believe me, I hope I'm wrong in this case...please provide more examples!

Anonymous said...

Dick Freaking Sutphen?

Mr. Reee said...

From the gentleman's bio:

"... Dick Sutphen has received over 150 awards for creating outstanding advertising and design for clients such as Scotch Tape and Betty Crocker. ...His wife, Tara Sutphen, is the author of Blame It On Your Past Lives ..."

Why do I hear the voice of Eric Idle when I read that? :)

alan said...

#1. Gary Snyder
#2. Alice Walker
#3. Gene Vincent

Thanks for the examples.

It may be more a case of my ignorance, but I've only heard of one of these three. I doubt that an average citizen has heard of any.

Anon @ 6:33 thanks for the Tiger Woods example. I had no idea. Kind of gratifying to learn.

Jinzang. Thanks for your analysis. I am ignorant of Asian history. For all I know, there is a pantheon of famous doctors, scientists and politicians who are also Buddhists.

Also your implied point that Buddhism is a comparatively young religion in the West is interesting.

"Of what use is a newborn child" goes the quote.

I realize that my question is another version of Dogan's question ie why bother with practice if all beings are perfect as they are.

And that he spent many years trying to answer that question.

Non the less, it still grinds my ass when I read about some zen master who claims sitting and staring at a wall is a benefit for all sentient beings. I'm not saying it isn't true. I just have my doubts.

I know that its only a thought, but on some level I'm afraid that if everyone in the world was a practicing zen student we'd all be sitting around in mud huts being amazingly nice to each other.

And dying like flies from lack of antibiotics.

One of the traits that I've noticed in the few high achieving people that I've been around it an amazing level of self absorption, sometimes pleasant, sometimes extremely unpleasant.

It seems to me that this self centered behavior is kind of a pre-requisite for achievement. It provides some of the focus and drive that major accomplishments require.

It also seems completely at odds with the type of world view that a well seasoned zen practice creates.

Jinzang said...

So this is the old why meditate when you could be working in a soup kitchen argument? The answer is the same it's always been: there's no reason why you can't do both.

Jinzang said...

It seems to me that this self centered behavior is kind of a pre-requisite for achievement.

If you go to the gym and hang out in the weight room, you'll find that what motivates some of the biggest guys there is a deep sense of inferiority. The drive that comes from that sense of inferiority goads them to their achievements. To me the price isn't worth it.

I know some very bright and very driven scientists. They're not always the happiest people, nor are they the nicest people to be around. I can't speak about business people or politicians, but I imagine it's the same.

The problem of being a driven person is that something is "driving" you. It could be unconscious beliefs learned in childhood. I can't see living out my life this way. And I can't see how a sane society can be built on maladaptive behavior.

Jinzang said...

Here's a list of famous Buddhists for anyone who's curious.

Alan_A said...

Among Buddhists making a difference: Aun Sang Suu Kyi.

Meditation vs. action in the world: not an either/or. And: a means, not an end.

The point of meditation in this context: go save the world, but clean up your own act first.

Seems as though the west could benefit from this.

Sometimes it has. Muhammed, in one of the more memorable hadith, said the same thing to an eager young jihadi, whom he'd just rejected from joining his jihad: "You fight the first jihad within yourelf."

But clearly this point is too often lost.

Anonymous said...

i think it all goes back to one's definition on having "done something." it seems to me that anonymous is thinking of only those whose accomplishments are well-known. plenty of people "do things" that we never hear or know about and they also to happen to practice zazen/ or be Buddhists. You don't have to be famous or notariety to have accomplished something. i practice zazen and work with the homeless and the mentally ill but am not famous. does my lack of fame mean i'm not off my ass contributing? all the janitors, daycare workers, grocery clerks, hotel cleaning staff (mainly women of colour in "menial" jobs), are they not contributing someting to society? and they may be Buddhist but we just don't know they are.
contribution is not necessarily measurable only be fame, power and achievment. and why aren't these people in these "menial" jobs considered just as important to the world as the surgeons, physicists and athletes?
food for thought.


Anonymous said...

Orlando Bloom, George Lucas, Steven Jobs, Harry Bradley, Jennifer Lopez, Oliver Stone, David Bowie, Harold Ramis, Herbie Hancock, Joseph Goldstein, Keanu Reeves, Penelope Cruz...

Anonymous said...

and if zazen and Buddhism helps us ordinary (non-famous) people treat each other and the planet with a little more respect, a little more empathy, and less self-pretention, then I'd say it accomplished a lot for us. There are billions of people all over the world, who knows how many are Buddhist, how many practice zazen, and you don't have to be famous to make a difference. you affect those around you who in turn, affect more people and so on.


alan said...


No, it's not the old soup kitchen/meditation argument.

I don't think that my question is answerable, but here it is in its baldest terms.

Does an experienced
(whatever that means) mediator loose something that on the average allows the human race to accomplish great things?

Here is another thought experiment.

Say, just for laughs, that sitting for years in zazen causes you (either suddenly or gradually) to realize that all sentient being and yourself are one and the same.

Suppose also, that in the course of that same mediation that you realize that there is a way out of (false) suffering.

If you allow both these suppositions, then the only course of action you have left is to serve your fellow beings. Because their pain is your pain. And vice versa.

It's almost an algebraic equation.

Such a hypothetical person would not be fully human as I think of a human. In a lot of ways, I think s/he would be a better person. But I also think s/he would loose something also. And I think the thing s/he would loose would be a certain selfishness that drives much of our human accomplishments.

Mind you, I'm not trying to argue that human accomplishments are uniformly good. Even my favorite example of antibiotics are a double edged sword.

Anonymous said...

Rivers Cuomo from the band Weezer

Mr. Reee said...

Neither truly here or there--just an observation; fame is the ultimate expression of 'emptiness' in the human realm.

This may be why you don't hear too much about zen practitioners who are famous for something besides 'expressing' zen.

I do like the idea that you should first 'save' yourself before saving the world (*especially* if you think it's you're job to try...)

I'm guessing, however, that saving oneself is not always prerequisite for accomplishing something of value to others. Call it dumb luck--or maybe an expression of the dharma working even when you're not looking ... :)

Alan_A said...

Alan -

The notion that selfishness/self-interest drives accomplishment is strongly held in the West, and especially in the U.S. It's the heart of capitalism (cf. Adam Smith: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own neccessities but of their advantages."

Many of us have that idea under our skin and it plays out in many different ways. A related idea - the romantic notion of the artist as a flawed, selfish, suffering being who uses those flaws to create art and would be diminished without them. As a result there are artists who resist therapy and addiction cures because they fear losing the creative spark.

It could be argued that the alternative - the Mahayana ideal of the enlightened being who draws on enlightenment to benefit others - is so alien that we have no frame of reference for it and can't quite believe it's real.

Many flawed, selfish people have benefitted humanity. The question is, did they benefit humanity because of their flaws, or in spite of them?

Alan_A said...

Another point - we're talking here about selfishness, self-interest and self-involvement, in the context of a Buddhist philosophy that says there's no such thing as a separate self. Adam Smith's viewpoint makes no sense in a Buddhist setting.

Concerning this: I gather there's a strong anti-intellectual bent in some Zen quarters ("Don't need no book learning, just sit!") The problem is, though, that without some basic grounding in the philosophy, the experience of just sitting, for Westerners, risks drawing up deeply held viewpoints about the role of self vs. other, and this in turn can create the self-involved, anesthetised meditator that we've been debating here.

So I'd probably want to make the case for packing a couple of books before heading down the path...

proulx michel said...

Many flawed, selfish people have benefitted humanity. The question is, did they benefit humanity because of their flaws, or in spite of them?

I'd say in spite of. The thing is that, even the most flawed persons have something good.

The other thing, to which I have given a thought is, it seems normal that Eastern scientists wouldn't feel that compelled to explore the realm of nuclear physics if they already took it for granted. It might be in part the opposition of Christianity to it that prompted our scientists to so recklessly explore the thing.

I also think the big flaw of the Eastern nations has been their adherence to what has been called Eastern Despotism, while the West has much more explored the possibilities of extended cooperation. (Essentially the Barbaric Germanic tribes at the fall of the Roman Empire).

The realm of political cooperation (eg democracy) has never been an easy experiment, especially when it climbed up to larger constituencies. The 17th Century, for an example, thought that such a small country as the Netherlands could well be a Republic, but never such a big one as France. The English experiment went as we know it: a dictatorship.

Alan_A said...

Proux Michel -

David Loy tried to make the case recently in one of the Buddhist rags (Tricycle or Buddhadharma, I forget which) that while the East was far ahead in questioning, exploring and mapping the inner landscape, it was too accepting of external authority systems - whereas the West excelled in questioning and altering these. He suggested that the two approaches in combination would be worth pursuing.

UK as a dictatorship - interesting. What timeframe?

pkb said...

Alan, your post sounds like a letter I wrote to my own teacher years ago. The Buddha did not claim to find a cure for pain. He did claim a way out of suffering. For most of us these are the same. After some serious zen practice you may find they are not. Just as you may find that love and attachment are not only not identical, but have an inverse relationship.

Suffering arises from delusion about the nature of existence itself...who or what we are...what the universe is. No matter how much pain we may avoid (in ourselves or other people) and no matter how much pleasure and ease we accumulate, none of this relieves suffering. This is why we hear of so many famous movie stars, rock stars and rich, successful people becoming depressed or committing suicide. They find that no amount of fame, ego gratification, security or pleasure is ever 'enough'. The underlying suffering is still there, only now with no real hope of alleviating it.

We can feed the hungry child in zimbabwe, supply her with antibiotics, give her an education (and all these are laudable and worthy things to do) and this may lessen pain and prolong life. But none of it will relieve existential suffering. She will likely still fear death and disease, suffer from attachments to people, pleasures and feel hurt when her ego is wounded. She'll still get sick, old and die.

It's like decorating a prison cell vs. escaping the prison. By escape, I do not mean escaping 'the world' or the senses. Escaping samsara simply means putting an end to the mind of birth and death, seeing the actual nature of things beyond our prison of conceptual thinking.

We may prolong human life to a thousand years, but death would still be at the end with it's fear and dread. The loss of those we love and finally our self. The Buddha showed a path to end the deep suffering we experience to one degree or another because of our confusion / delusion as to the nature of our self. No amount of worldly progress will alleviate this delusion.

Comparing the quest for longer life or more security, etc to the path of zen is like comparing apples to oranges. Just as no amount of intellectual philosophising, reading or exploring altered states can ever lead to an end to suffering, no amount of good works can either. It does not follow that reading or thinking , technology or helping people is bad, to be avoided or useless. It's just never going to end suffering or bring what some of us call enlightenment.

Only by understanding the nature of your own mind can you put an end to suffering itself. We still grow old, get sick and die. When you hit your finger with a hammer it still hurts. But the suffering isn't there. Zazen can't cure infections. Antibiotics can't end delusion. Good luck.

gniz said...

Some people in this comments section have lost the plot--or the intial point being made...

The question morphed into "why arent there more famous Buddhists?"

That was NOT the original question, imo. The original question was aimed at significant achievements in the realm of science, medicine, civil rights, etc.

The apparent lack of Buddhists in any of these areas seems odd to me. Buddhism has now been in the West for a solid 30-40 years...plenty of time for there to be some folks who came of age and made some significant contributions.

No, I am not saying that running a soup kitchen, volunteering, or working hospice isnt meaningful or isnt contributing. The question is whether there is something in the philosophy that perhaps leads individuals away from the kind of all-consuming, focused learning and drive that would create the next nobel prize winner in physics, the next scientist to further the cure for lung cancer, etc etc

gniz said...

"But none of it will relieve existential suffering. She will likely still fear death and disease, suffer from attachments to people, pleasures and feel hurt when her ego is wounded. She'll still get sick, old and die."

This paragraph eloquently voices a philosophy that would preclude someone undertaking an intense study of science or medicine, based on the idea that at the end of the day, such advances would be futile.

Jinzang said...

Does an experienced (whatever that means) mediator loose something that on the average allows the human race to accomplish great things?

No. Meditation does two things. First, it calms the mind. Second, if you practice long enough, it overcomes delusion. You don't lose anything in overcoming delusion, because there was nothing there to begin with. Maybe what's behind your concern is the Buddhist idea that desire causes suffering. You might think this means turning yourself into a soulless robot. But it doesn't work that way. You need to see what desire is, but the real understanding only comes with a lot of practice.

a certain selfishness that drives much of our human accomplishments.

This sounds like a very American prejudice to me. Just look at the open software / free software movement. It's created a body of work that runs most of the Internet (Apache, Linux, MySQL, PHP, Perl, Python, ...). And all done out of a communitarian concern for the greater good.

I remember a public television show on sociology. Two American kids were told to play a game. A checker was placed in the middle of a checker board. They could move the checker one square in any direction. If they get the checker to their side of the board, they got a prize. But if after ten moves neither succeeded, the game was over and neither got a prize. The American kids moved the checker towards themselves and neither kid ever won the game. But when the same game was explained to two Mexican kids, they took turns letting each other win.

gniz said...

Jinzang, I feel like you are willfully ignoring Allen's point and intent in his question.

Theoretically, nothing is stopping Buddhists from making significant and meaningful contributions to society in terms of western view of achievement.

You want to say that that is a narrow view. Fine. But that is the view we are discussing right now. Care to answer the actual question?

gniz said...

And as far as fame being the criteria by which someone is judged--lets just say it might be difficult to discuss achievements none of us has ever heard of.

So we're discussing things that make our lives better in materialistic terms--medicine, civil and human rights, science, etc.

I am not surprised at the backlash since the best we've done so far is Tiger Woods (who meditates and has a very cursory interest in Buddhism) and the dude from Weezer.

pkb said...

"This paragraph eloquently voices a philosophy that would preclude someone undertaking an intense study of science or medicine, based on the idea that at the end of the day, such advances would be futile."

gniz, you missed at least some of what was said. Science, medicine IS futile for relieving delusion and the suffering arising from it It is not futile for easing pain or prolonging life.

Studying art is also futile in this regard. As is playing softball, having sex, picking boogers, climbing mountains or watching tv. It's confusing two different categories. Relieving pain, increasing relative comfort and security vs ending suffering (as explained above).

Watching tv probably won't get me's 'futile' for that. Going to college won't enlarge my's futile in that regard.

alan said...


Yes, I have to admit, the soulless robot issue does trouble me from time to time. I’m already too serious as it is.

It’s not a persistent thought, though.

And yes, I’m Ameriken. And if you believe that we are a very selfish driven country, I would have to agree.

But just looking around at the news headlines around the world, in business and elsewhere, I see plenty of behavior that is driven by selfishness. No nation has a monopoly.

The open software movement is (as I understand it) pretty altruistic. But for every example like this, I can posit dozens of counterexamples.

The checker story is nice, but I don’t think that necessarily reflects the larger tone of Mexican society. The drug wars that are going on right now are not win-win. And no, I don’t believe that they reflect the larger picture either.

But as gniz says, my question was not “why aren’t there more famous Buddhists”. It more on the idea if there is something about the philosophy of Buddhism that inhibits profound achievement in society.

It can be argued what profound achievement is, but I’m talking about polio vaccine, antibiotics, the transistor, democracy, ideas that a have radically changed many lives, arguably for the better.

I’m having trouble even formulating the question without resorting to words like bad/good/famous.

Anonymous said...

Gniz, How can you make the assumption that there have been no significant Buddhist achievements in the realm of science, medicine, civil rights, whatever.. just because you are unaware of any? You have no way of knowing the personal beliefs of anyone unless they want it known. Chasing after fame is not big in Buddhist circles and proselytizing is definitely frowned upon.

gniz said...

Anon, You are right--I made an assumption...I looked at some lists on Wiki, etc. There dont seem to be many Buddhists of the type we are discussing, so I made an assumption that perhaps there actually arent many.

Usually some smart alek like Mysterion will come on with a whole bunch of links to enlighten us, but so far--nothing....I'm happy to be proven wrong.

When I first realized what Alan was pointing to, it made me very uneasy.

alan said...

Anon @ 12:15

I love that idea!

I can see it now, the blockbuster book :

"They Walk Among us Now : Buddhists, the Unseen Overlords"

Would make a great Monty Python/Eddie Izzard pastiche.

On a more serious note, I think that in Amerikan society, (with its intense examination of all aspects of the lives of well known people), that being something other than a Christian would somehow escape scrutiny.

Jinzang said...

Steve Jobs: very famous businessman

Alan Ginsberg: very famous poet

Dalai Lama: very famous politician

Lots of Buddhist doctors

Lots of Buddhist film stars and musicians

It seems the only category we're missing is scientist.

gniz said...


Thanks for answering...maybe some others will fill in the gaps...

Anonymous said...

There have been scientists who were regular contributors to this very blog! But they had the good fortune not to become famous.

PhillySteveInLA said...

To anonymous at 8:57,
Since everyone else has ignored your important question for the juicier practice/do something rigamarole, I'll take a shot at it.
For me, the idea of the intensive retreat is to really zone in and concentrate and your practice exclusively. It gives you an environment where, for a period of time, you can not think because you don't have to think. everything is schedulred and regimented for you and you are forced to really practice, because there is nowhere to hide.
Also, for many people, a retreat is the only place where they come into face to face contact with a teacher.
That's how I look at it anyway.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realize gniz that we had to stick to a plot, a regulated topic we could comment on here. Some people may want to comment on what is deemed as the original theme, but others have things they might like to say in regards to Brad's blog and other thoughts on the comments or plot. I didn't realize we didn't have freedom of speech in these mere comments section. Some very interesting points and views have been made and I don't care if they stick to a strick agenda of what we are supposed to be talking about. I didn't know we were only supposed to be talking in a certain vein.


Aaron said...


You seem to think I was talking to you in that regard--you once again appear defensive, that I'm insulting you or something...I'm not.

When Alan brought up that question regarding Buddhists not contributing to science, medicine, etc., some folks made comments to the effect of: "Kurt Russell is a Buddhist-so there!" or "just cuz someone isnt a movie star doesnt mean they cant contribute."

Those comments had NOTHING to do with Alan's question, and all I was trying to say was that I didn't believe they were talking about the same thing.

Of course people can say whatever they want on here--why are you acting like I'm trying to crush free speech--for god's sake, thats a bit of an overreaction....

Hendrik said...

One of the greatest computer scientists, Joseph Goguen, was a practising Tibetan Buddhist. He introduced me to Buddhism in the '90s when he was my doctoral supervisor. His recent death is a tremendous loss.

Anonymous said...

I didn't think you were talking to me at all. It just seemed you were trying to control the board. The whole freedom of speech thing was sarcasm that you perceived as an attack. I've noticed on messageboards etc. people get really upset when others go off topic in their minds, I was being sarcastic. But take it as you will. Besides people can make comments that in fact, have nothing to do with Alan's question. Who cares if they do. People can say whatever they want. And it appears you can read my mind (now I hope you can read the humor in that). Laugh a little.


alan said...

Anon @ 8:57

I have have little personal experience to describe what the difference between daily practice and an all day/multi day sitting.

Here is what others have said :

Brad says that he feels both are important, but that the daily practice is vital.

My teacher, who also studied under Nishijima, also says that daily practice is vital.

Charlette Joko Beck, whose writings I love, gives the following analogy (not a direct quote)

"Daily practice creates a glowing ember, attending a sesshin can fan that glow into flames"

gniz said...


Fair enough....i agree with the gist of what your wrote, and thanks for the humor...

And Hendrik, thank you also for your answer.

alan said...

By the way, I really don't think that my question has any answer, other than the one I can come up with.

That said, I'm happy with the answers I have been given. They have stimulated further thought.

The only reason I brought it up in the first place is because its a question I've had for a long time and it has not gone away.

I even brought it up after one of Brads sittings in Santa Monica.

Other than Leonard Cohen, I don't remember any other answers.

Really, my instinct is that I'm just angry about it for some reason. And I'm trying to accept my responsibility for that anger.

Maybe it's just my koan.

NellaLou said...

Hey alan.

You asked "can you name any Buddhist who is famous for anything other than being a Buddhist?" As one of those scholarly big mouths (or whatever the characterization is) I can name a few for you. Some are convert Buddhists and some are born within Buddhist families/countries. Some are historical and some are contemporary.

Gautama-convert Buddhist, invented Buddhism (sort of) so I guess that makes him an inventor of sorts and he was famous locally as a prince

Ashoka the great-(304 BC – 232 BC) convert Buddhist, united India a couple of millenia ago as king

U.Thant-Burmese born 3rd Secretary-General of the United Nations

The royal families of Bhutan, Thailand , and a bunch of other Buddhist countries. Known for being royalty.

Here's the list of Nobel Laureates in all categories listed by country. Many are Asian born or of Asian parentage. And within the areas of the UK and US and other "Western" nations there are numerous Asian names as well.

Of those, statistically a high percentage of them will quite likely identify as Buddhist. But the issue of religion is not exactly relevant to their fields of study except for HH Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Here's a whole blog dedicated to Buddhist Celebrities from all over the world. You can see the lists of them by nationality.

In an interview contrasting differing approaches to the creation of music, Yoyo Ma, the Grammy award winning cello player and composer said, "There is this idea in the modern West that we must all be original; we all must be authors in the sense that authorship is individual. I think we got too hierarchical and the idea of originality was developed almost to the point of absurdity. This is a different model, and a much older one."

This is equally applicable to many fields of study. If someone comes from a culture that is more oriented towards a social identity rather than an individual one the originator may well bring the creation/discovery/idea to a group/committee/teacher for it to be vetted/discussed/improved upon. That individual names do not immediately pop up has more to do with the methods of discovery and inquiry than the lack of ability in such fields.

Consider the historical inventions of such things as gunpowder, the compass and hundreds of other things in China. Names are not attached to those things. Likewise in India. And if you were to go through current patent records relating to Japanese companies you would likely find tens of thousands of inventions/discoveries made by their employees, many of whom are Buddhist.

And also consider the stage at which cultures are in their development. The much older Asian cultures have gone through many cycles of growth, discovery, development long before the "scientific West" was even on the horizon. There are many factors to be considered in the question you have put forward. The limited notion of "fame" itself is questionable. How relevant will all that fame be in a thousand years from now?

So there may not be a lot of hoopla attached to the names of Buddhists but the contributions are hardly negligible.

Mysterion said...

Blogger alan said...
": can you name any Buddhist who is famous for anything other than being a Buddhist?"

John Cage - find him also here

Writer Gary Snyder

Actor Richard Gere is a longtime devotee...

Not only is Leonard Cohen a buddhist, but he's a pretty serious one.

Most Buddhists don't wear Buddhism on their sleeve like Xtian Fundies.

2 reasons:
1) Buddhists generally do NOT proselytize.
2) Buddhists do not argue - in public - with simple fools.

Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka (260-218 BCE) ended up creating Christianity - e.g. the widow's mite coin has the wheel of dharma on one side and the anchor of Seleukos II on the other.

Mysterion said...


Jerry Brown former boy-governor of CA.

Here, in Africa.

I know a few hundred, but then I live in the bay area. We have more Buddhist Temples than non-catholic christian churches. There are 47 Buddhist Temples in my immediate vicinity. (e.g. my 5 digit zip code +/-1)

Stephanie said...

Interesting discussion going on here...

I've thought about this a lot myself, in terms of Buddhism not engaging certain valid and compelling aspects of the human experience.

Buddhism offers what I believe is the practice and method par excellence if someone wishes to be acquainted with the truth.

However, in terms of its symbolism and emotional quality, I actually find it lacking in comparison to other religions when it comes to my own temperament and personal taste. I relate more on an emotional, creative level to a candlelit church with pictures of bleeding hearts and whatnot in the windows, and all the iconography of suffering and uplift, than to peaceful, serene Buddhas grooving to the music of the spheres. Though I can relate to that too at times.

The bottom line is that passion is not a valued quality in Buddhism. If you're one of those folks who enjoys experiencing passion, and who is driven by it, you might find Buddhism unappealing. Similarly, if you're the type to be drawn to Buddhism, you might also be less likely to be the type to "suffer for your art," so to speak. Because to a Buddhist, that would just be ignorant.

I find it noteworthy that the music that really moves me tends to feature a lot of Christian iconography, while Buddhist iconography features very little. And it's not just what is available or what I'm exposed to, but that I can really groove with the whole "sin, suffering, and salvation" dynamic in a way I can't with the "serene Buddhist" thing.

Even Leonard Cohen uses more imagery from his experiences as a Jew than his experiences as a Zen Buddhist in his songs and poetry. Though he's remarkably adept at expressing his Zen insights as well.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Cohen uses a lot of Catholic imagery in his lyrics. Odd for a Jewish Buddhist.

NellaLou said...

Stephanie said:

"The bottom line is that passion is not a valued quality in Buddhism."

If you mean by passion any of the following definitions:Boundless enthusiasm, fervor, fire, zeal, ardor, a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept then certainly Buddhism is full of passion. Especially once Bodhicitta has developed there is very little else that matches the ardor with which one practices Buddhism. (think Bodhidharma!) It may appear to be a subdued passion, compared to lust or desire-passion for sense objects. Without some kind of strong impetus like fervent devotion most people would abandon Buddhist practices in the first week or so.

"If you're one of those folks who enjoys experiencing passion, and who is driven by it, you might find Buddhism unappealing. "

Or you might find it gives your experiences a whole new level to contemplate.

"Similarly, if you're the type to be drawn to Buddhism, you might also be less likely to be the type to "suffer for your art," so to speak. Because to a Buddhist, that would just be ignorant."

Suffering for art is usually in the judgmental minds of the beholders. Most artists just do the thing they do in preference to doing the things most non-artists do like making a lot of money or having a lot of comforts. Artists have a certain devotional passion that is similar to a religious devotional passion. We may sit in our easy chairs and talk of their "suffering for art" or impose our definition of suffering upon these others but the question really is do they themselves define their lives as one of suffering (such as being without material pleasures) or one of joy and creation. People don't do a thing, particularly something outside the "mainstream" unless there is some big psychological/emotional etc. payoff. It wouldn't happen again and again if there weren't some kind of impulse and satisfaction of that impulse for the person driven by creative or devotional urges. To this Buddhist "suffering for art" is as understandable as devotion to Buddhism. But maybe I'm just ignorant.

Stephanie said...

Here's some fuckin' passion:

Stephanie said...

It's a mighty hard climb, Lord...

proulx michel said...

Alan_A asked

UK as a dictatorship - interesting. What timeframe?

Cromwell's Commonwealth, 17th century

proulx michel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Very interesting and well put points NellaLou. So true that it gives one a whole new level to contemplate. And I might at, a whole new level to experience that is not our usual, rote habitual way of thinking or perceiving.
As for an artist suffering for his or her work, all I can say in half-jest/half-seriousness, my partner has published 12 books and has suffered through many sleepless nights to meet deadlines!! LOL


Alan_A said...

Alan_A asked

UK as a dictatorship - interesting. What timeframe?

Proulx Michel answered

Cromwell's Commonwealth, 17th century

Ah, yes - that makes sense.

Alan_A said...

Nella Lou - excellent points, thanks for sharing.

Lurking in the background of this discussion is another issue. While it's impossible to generalize, here in the West, it seems that much of the energy of convert Buddhism draws on the monastic traditions. This flows together naturally with a culture of therapy. Whatever lineage convert Buddhists are drawing on, many seem to fall naturally into a focus on peace of mind, coupled with withdrawal from the world. This is one of the reasons there's currently discussion of "engaged Buddhism" - maybe in contrast to the disengaged Buddhism that comes through in the Buddhist magazines, which often seem to fall into the self-help category.

This is in contrast to the Western religions. Even Christianity, which clearly has a strong monastic vein, has long since found ways to get involved in the "secular" world, for good or ill. Islam is clearly engaged - Muhammed was, after all, a head of state.

My own "home" territory, Judaism, has no notion of withdrawal from the world and heavily promotes engagement. Basic ideas: creation is a collaboration between God and humanity, creation is flawed, and the task of humanity is tikkun olam,, "the repair of the world."

In practice, this has led many of my synagogue collegues to go crashing into the world to "fix" things - without pausing to think about the implications of their fixing, or to get their own mental, social and spiritual house in order first.

Many American Buddhists, by contrast, seem to dis-engage - to cite (and twist) a popular law school example, they seem a bit too willing to leave the baby face down in the pool of water because the baby's presence in the pool of water has its own suchness.

Both of these are misreadings. The Buddhists in question could probably benefit from a greater willingness to engage (recognizing that the boddhisatva vows demand it, and that not-acting is a form of acting). And my synagogue colleagues could do with a bit of meditation and a bit of hesitation before they go crashing into the world to make everything right.

All of this is separate from the question of achievement - but to the extent that achievement and engagement coincide (they do sometimes, not always), it seemed to be worth considering.

Your mileage may vary.

Rich said...

Hi Stephanie, you said "The bottom line is that passion is not a valued quality in Buddhism. If you're one of those folks who enjoys experiencing passion, and who is driven by it, you might find Buddhism unappealing."

I think practicing zazen puts you more in touch with your passions which includes your will to live and your sexuality. Trying to do the best you can right now is true passion. Sometimes I'm being driven by it and sometimes I'm driving it but I don't know mostly. I'm trying to cultivate the wisdom of knowing when and how to act and that's tricky sometimes. For this very reason I find Buddhism very appealing.

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