Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Back to Civilization

I'm back from Tassajara. That's a photo of the full moon over the Tassajara valley. Did you miss me?

Man. A lot went on while I was away. Jani Lane died. I didn't see that one coming. I never knew Jani. But I was pals with Steve, who is also mentioned in the article I linked to, all through high school. I didn't realize Jani was also from Akron. I can't say I was ever the world's biggest Warrant fan. But among the LA hair metal bands of the time, they were far better than most. They could actually write songs that were about something, as well as dumber-than-dumb rockers like Cherry Pie. I actually really like that song and always have. "Think about baseball, swing all night!" Genius, I tell ya!

A bit closer to home for me, Tim LaFollette died last Tuesday. Tim was a close friend of my friend Catie Braly. I only met Tim once. But I heard a lot about him from Catie. Tim wrote the theme song to Dan Savage's Savage Love podcast. The last 5 minutes of the latest episode are a tribute by Dan Savage to Tim as well as one of Tim's best songs, "Sad State of Affairs." Catie sings on most of Tim's stuff that he did with their band The Popovers. Tim had ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's Disease. He was dedicated to raising awareness of the disease. I'm sad he's gone.

The other night I spent some time with my buddy Daigan Gaither of the San Francisco Zen Center. Daigan is a Zen monk and also one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters are officially heretics according to the Holy Roman Catholic Church! Way to go, Daigan!

Daigan noted that my work is something people either really love or really hate. That seems to be true. And I'm glad of that. If I only inspired indifference I wouldn't be doing my job.

What can I tell you about Tassajara? I did three weeks there as a member of the kitchen crew. I chopped loads of vegetables, baked tons of cookies, and washed more dishes than I ever thought there were on Earth. I'd been invited down by Greg Fain, the practice leader, to give some talks. But, like last year, I thought it was boring just to go down there for three or four days, lounge around the hot springs baths, do a couple talks and leave. So I enrolled as a rank-and-file student. That's loads more fun and a lot more interesting and informative.

My first talk was called "Was Dogen Really Dogen?" I tried to address the issues raised by Carl Bielefeld and others recently concerning certain parts of the accepted biography of Dogen. Much of what we think we know about the man turns out to be dubious. It's doubtful, for example, that he wrote his masterwork on Zazen, Fukan Zazengi (Recommending Zazen for All People), in 1227 when when he first arrived back from China as a youngster of 27. More likely he wrote it about five years later and then extensively revised it in the 1240s, when he was an old man in his forties. Also, the stories of his wanderings in China looking for a true master are probably highly exaggerated by the contemporary Soto organization. Dogen himself never really claimed to have done a whole lot of traveling on the continent.

I said that I wonder if the matter of who our teachers "really are" is actually very important. Who one "really is" is a kind of fiction we create about ourselves and about others.

My second talk was about Dogen's views regarding monkhood. In a few of his later works, Dogen seems to directly contradict what he said in Fukan Zazengi about everyone being able to practice zazen and reach enlightenment. He says that only one who has "left home" (出家, shukke, pronounced shoe-kay)can ever hope to truly understand Buddhism.

In today's Japanese style Buddhism, what it means to "leave home" is a bit vague. Nishijima Roshi's definition is even more vague. In the old days, a "home leaver" really left secular society. He or she couldn't hold down a job, get married, handle money and so on. These days the Japanese Soto-shu and other such organizations permit "home leavers" to do all of those things and more. In America and Europe the rules have become even looser.

I once asked Nishijima Roshi, "Am I a monk?" He said, "Yes. You are a monk." In his eyes anyone who took the precepts automatically became a monk. My friend Konin spoke up during the talk. She said that she believed a monk was anyone who was committed to helping maintain whatever it is that supports people to do the practice. An interesting definition.

I've never lived in a monastery except for a few short stints at Tassajara. I did a month last year, three weeks this year, plus a few other odd days and weeks over the previous years. Nishijima Roshi never kept a temple or monastery. Neither did my first teacher. So the monastic life is still somewhat mysterious to me. What does it mean? What value does it have to contemporary society?

I'll try and get the recordings of these talks to John to put up on the podcast soon.

OK. I gotta go.

See ya later, skaters!

Friday, August 26, 2011

I Am So Over This Buddhism Shit!

Brad is at Tassajara Zen Monastery where there's no Internet access. Here is one last oldie but goodie written for SuicideGirls to tide you over till he gets back.

So I’m sitting cross-legged in the meditation hall at the San Francisco Zen Center a couple days ago. Incense wafts through the air, bells are rung, ancient chants are intoned, and then profound silence descends. The assembled monks embark on their meditative journeys to the centers of their minds. All at once a thought bubbles up to the surface of my consciousness, like an arrow piercing the cold emptiness of the pre-dawn air.

I am soooo over this shit.

God how I fucking hate it. After 25 years of doing this stupid crap, stick a fork in me I am done. When I was a youngster the mere idea of sitting in a temple with a group of dedicated monks all pursuing the sacred Dharma gave me an iron-hard boner you could have sliced pound cake with. How I longed for that serenity, that peace. How I fantasized of ascending to the heights of Supreme, Unsurpassed, Perfect Enlightenment. How I dreamed of the day I might be in the very spot I’m in right now, living the life of a wandering monk, flitting here and there from temple to temple absorbing the words of the wise and dispensing my own wisdom to those new to the Way, spending my days deepening my practice.

But god-dammit I’d rather be at Amoeba Records right now. It's just up Haight Street. I could be there in 20 minutes. I think that new Om record must be out by now, the one they recorded live in Jerusalem. Maybe even that new Robyn Hitchcock boxed set. But noooooo. I not only signed up for this shit, I signed up to do a five-day long zazen intensive at the Berkeley Zen Center right afterwards, followed immediately by two weeks cloistered at Tassajara monastery deep in the mountains of Carmel Valley - where there are no record stores at all. Fuck. What in God's name was I thinking?

One of the greatest things about Zen practice is that it's incredibly portable. You don't need anything special. You don't need a temple or monastery. You don't need to memorize any chants or read any books. You don't need a congregation. Zen goes anywhere you go. You can do your sitting on a rolled up towel in your dorm room, which is how I started.

But human beings like to do things together. We're social creatures. And so a monastic tradition also developed within Buddhism. A lotta folks think that if you're not hip to the monastery thang you ain't no Buddhist. They're wrong. Shakyamuni himself did not come to his understanding as a member of any religious order, and there is a laundry list as long as your arm of other great teachers who either shunned monastic life, or came to monastic life after establishing the Way on their own, or who did a bit of the monastic stuff when it was necessary but largely stayed away from it. The non-monastic tradition in Buddhism is just as vital as the monastic one.

But the pull towards making Buddhism a social thing, and only a social thing, is strong. In America, we seem dead set on turning Buddhism into a string of socially agreed upon cliches and buzzwords.

A couple weeks ago or so I put a post up on my blog in which I moaned about some of the buzzwords and neo-traditions that have become au currant among American Buddhists these days. One was that dependable puppy dog of a word, "mindfulness." Christ I hate that word. The word seems to indicate some vague state of thinking hard about what you're doing. And I know we're all taught that we should think about what we're doing. But that's not the Buddhist approach. Do what you're doing. When thinking becomes a distraction, stop thinking and get back to doing. I'm also sick to death of hearing hipster Buddha dudes use the word "skillful" to describe things they like and "unskillful" to describe things they don't. It's a total misuse of the old Buddhist idea of upaya, or "skillful means," by which ancient Buddhist teachers are said to have taught in unorthodox ways. These days it just means whatever's under discussion didn't rub the guy who called it "skillful" the wrong way. I'm also fed up with the concept of the "dharma talk," which has come to mean something like, "guys in funny robes using buzzwords like 'mindfulness' and 'skillful' to lull people who think of themselves as 'spiritually minded' to sleep." I'm tired of watching entire audiences nod out like opium addicts while smiling knowingly whenever a favorite word or phrase floats through the haze.

Whatever. Anyway, after I said this stuff a whole buncha folks got really mad about it. Fine. Be as mad as you want. I, myself, am not the least bit angry about this. I was just fed up with it and continue to be fed up with it.

Back when I was first in punk rock, the thing that irked me the most, and finally drove me out of punk rock altogether, was the fact that the philosophy we espoused was all about questioning things. And yet you were not allowed to question punk rock itself. It was great to question Reagan and nuclear proliferation and the cops and school. But if you started asking things like, why do we all have to wear leather jackets, or why can't we have vocal harmonies in some of the songs, or why can't I grow my hair long if I want, that was taboo.

American Buddhism as it stands today is pretty much the same way. Buddhism isn't that way. But the stuff that lotsa people call "Buddhism" is. It's a subtle distinction, I know. But an important one.

So when I started calling bullshit on the idea of mindfulness, and skillfulness and "dharma talks," the reaction was almost identical to what used to happen when I'd go onstage at hardcore shows in the early 80s with long hair and bell-bottoms. You can't do that! We can challenge everything in the world, but don't you dare challenge us!

If Buddhism can’t be challenged it isn’t Buddhism anymore.

We're all looking for a place to settle. We want stability. We want something dependable. Buddhism is all about addressing that very issue. It aims for the ultimate stable resting place. But Buddhism takes things in a very different direction from our habitual way of dealing with our longing for stability. Religions and subculture movements like punkrock want to reduce things to formulas. Believe that Jesus Christ is the one true Son of God and you're all right. But the words "Jesus Christ is the one true Son of God" mean something absolutely different to each individual who uses them. Words such as “mindfulness” and the like take on all kinds of different meanings when they reach the mass culture. And when they stop meaning anything useful it’s time to retire them.

This is hard for lots of folks to get a grip on. They want Buddhism to be like a bumper sticker, “Buddha said it, I believe it and that settles it.” But that’s not the Buddhist way.

At any rate I’m totally over all that stuff big time. And yet, by the time you read this I’ll be finishing up one retreat and heading off to another — being all “mindful” and listening to skillfully delivered Dharma talks.

Sometimes even when you’re over stuff you still gotta do it anyway. Sometimes you gotta do it especially when you’re over it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Buddhism and Violence

Brad is at Tassajara Zen Monastery where there's no Internet access. Here is an oldie but goodie written for SuicideGirls to tide you over till he gets back.

While I was in Phoenix, a friend turned me on to an article called “Spaces in the Sky” written by Stephen Batchelor in response to the events of September 11, 2001. It originally appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Tricycle magazine and is now on-line at Batchelor’s website. My friend recalled the article as stating that our right to practice Buddhism is underwritten by violence. That’s not what the article says exactly, but it’s easy to see how he could have remembered it that way. What Batchelor actually says is, “Our freedoms and privileges in a liberal democracy are ultimately guaranteed by the willingness of the state to use violence to protect them.” Later he asks, “Is an open society that tolerates dissent even possible without its being underwritten by violence?”

Batchelor points out that the Buddhist dictum in the Dharmapada that, “Hatred will not cease by hatred but only by love alone” is often used by Buddhists to justify a complacent attitude when their freedom to practice was threatened. Batchelor gives examples of cases where Buddhists have allowed themselves to be massacred in order to uphold their commitment to non-violence. He also points out that Tibet accepted military protection from China hoping they would be allowed to continue practicing their faith without having to protect it militarily themselves. This strategy backfired big time.

Whether Batchelor actually said it or not, the idea that our freedom to practice Buddhism is underwritten by violence is an important one. It's worth looking at closely especially for practitioners in the United States today. In my travels around the country I’ve noticed that most American Buddhists are strongly opposed to President Bush and his military policies. This opposition seems to stem from their notion that, as Buddhists, we must stand opposed to all forms of violence. But I wonder if it’s realistic for Buddhists to be opposed to all forms of violence in the way that most Buddhists in the US conceive of that notion.

Yesterday I got to talk to the members of the band Millions of Dead Cops, a group that the band I was in, Zero Defex, opened up for numerous times in 1982-83. Back then the subject of anarchism used to come up a lot in our discussions of punk philosophy. The idea of anarchy sounded very cool. But, as much as we hated the cops, all of us knew the truth. Our ability to walk down the streets of Akron, Ohio in 1982 in our green Mohawks and leather jackets was largely underwritten by the threat of violence. The many rednecks in the area who would likely have massacred us gleefully if not for fear of reprisal by the police. The cops were there to protect our freedom of expression. Were it not for them, the less forward thinking elements of the community might not have been so tolerant of the way we flaunted their conventions. We found this out in a very concrete way when we played a show in a rural town in Southern Ohio and had to be saved by the cops from an angry mob of bearded bikers who didn’t care for the way we looked or the music we played.

In much the same way in the world at large today the freedom we have in Western countries to practice Buddhism is guaranteed to a large extent by the fact that we are protected by the biggest and scariest military force the world has ever known. There are certainly plenty of folks out there who would like to see us stop practicing whatever beliefs we have and be forced to adopt theirs or die.

The world is a sandbox in back of an elementary school. The exact same dynamics that play out in the playground play out in the world of politics and nations.

It is true that Buddhism seeks to end the need for the use of violence. However, we can’t jump to the conclusion that if we only just all disarmed right now everybody would be cool. The problem is to understand why we still need violence to underwrite freedom.

We won’t stop violence by dressing up in paisley frocks and sticking daisies in the barrels of AK-47s. Such action is still motivated by ego. It is based on the idea that I, Mr. Buddhist Pacifist, am better than you, you nasty Republican warmonger. The very same force that makes violence an unavoidable part of human life is the one that tries, through a different kind of violence, to overcome violence. This is really what Buddha meant by saying that hatred is not overcome by hatred. We need to find a way to completely step out of our habitual modes of reaction in order to find the real solution to our very pressing problems.

The only way to do this is to truly understand who we are and to allow that understanding to spread gradually throughout the world. As Buddhists it may not be necessary for we, ourselves, to go out and participate in the violence perpetrated to protect our right to practice — though there is certainly nothing at all wrong with being a practicing Buddhist and member of the military. But it also does not benefit our practice to stand in the way of the necessary steps being taken to uphold our right to practice.

War is bad. I’m going to write that again just so no one mistakenly thinks I believe otherwise. War is bad. War is very, very bad.

It’s a tragedy when non-combatants are injured and killed by war. It’s also a tragedy when combatants are injured and killed by war. I want war to end just as passionately as anyone else. But unrealistic solutions only serve to delay the real solution to the problem. This is an urgent problem, one that requires serious attention. What I see in the pacifist movement more often than not these days, I’m afraid, is a lack of serious commitment to the real ending of war.

Batchelor states that, “One can imagine this verse (about hate only being overcome by love) being intoned by Indian Buddhist monks while their monasteries burned, just as now devout e-mail messages are dispatched to the White House urging restraint and compassion. And just as its sentiments were ineffective in turning back the tide of Muslim aggression in India, so they may be equally ineffective in halting the course of violent retaliation against latter-day Islamic terrorism.”

Right on, brother.

The solution to the problem of violence is complex and I’m not even going to try to outline some course of action right here on Labor Day on Suicide Girls. But I think it’s vital that we understand the way the threat of violence, as well as real violence itself, makes it possible for us to practice. Nuff said, for now.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why Can't We Accept Good Spiritual Advice Unless It Comes From Superman?

Brad is at Tassajara Zen Monastery where there's no Internet access. Here is an oldie but goodie written for SuicideGirls to tide you over till he gets back.

My new book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate is out now.

I want to talk a little about the book. Not just to promote it (though I won’t deny I’m doing that), but because I wrote it to address a topic I think is really important. And that is, why we can’t seem to accept good spiritual advice unless it comes from Superman. I already ranted in my last column about how Buddhism isn’t spirituality. But here I’m using the word “spiritual” just to refer to that area of life that addresses the deep questions about the nature of things. It’s convenient shorthand. But everything I said last time still stands.

ANYWAY, there’s a long-standing notion that runs through a wide variety of religious traditions that people won’t listen to good spiritual advice unless the source of that advice possesses powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary men (and women, of course, but I’m quoting the intro to the old Superman TV show, which was very sexist). Thus it is not enough that Jesus said to love your enemies and advised that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. In order for anyone to accept that good stuff, the folks who spread his message thought we also needed to believe that Jesus had magic powers. I mean, why should we bother treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves unless the guy who said we should could change water into wine? D’uh.

This line of thinking runs through all the world’s great and not-so-great spiritual traditions. Buddhists are not any more immune to it than anybody else. There are hordes of stories of Buddha’s miracles and even of his virgin birth. The only real difference with Buddhists is that, by and large, they don’t tend to give a whole lot of importance to whether or not you believe those stories. In fact several major Buddhist lineages discount them entirely. But that doesn’t mean a lot of other Buddhists don’t believe them or even that for plenty of Buddhists those stories aren’t crucial.

The notion that for a spiritual teacher to be believed he or she must appear to be superhuman still carries a lot of weight even today. Of course, nowadays we’re less likely to believe our contemporary spiritual teachers can really do magic tricks -- though lots of people still fall for the sleight of hand of Eastern fakirs and Western faith healers. Sophisticated, worldly urban types tend to expect their miracles to be a bit more subtle than walking on water or turning into fire-spitting whirly-gigs as the Buddha is reported to have done. But we still expect miracles.

Sometimes we like our guys to have been great ancient teachers reincarnated or possess psychic abilities and beatific vision. And even when we’re not after those sorts of blatant conjuring acts we still look for people who conform to our image of spiritual purity. Those who are spiritually pure shouldn’t be like ordinary people. They need to be perpetually serene and unaffected, liberated from bodily desires and distress. When we find out that they’re people just like the rest of us we’re liable to rebel and turn upon them viciously. The mechanism by which this happens in Zen is well documented in books like Shoes Outside the Door and The Great Failure Neither Richard Baker, subject of Shoes Outside the Door nor Dainin Karagiri, the subject of The Great Failure, ever claimed to be spiritual Supermen, but that didn’t stop certain of their followers from reacting with anger, distress and even grief when it was revealed they were not.

Of course someone who advocates a meditative practice ought to show signs of that meditative practice having had some good effects on their own lives. That’s perfectly reasonable to expect. What’s not perfectly reasonable to expect is that those good effects should manifest in precisely the manner we imagine they ought to. We can never know what these people would have been like if they hadn’t done their practice. Furthermore it’s not how meditative practice has affected your teacher that’s important. It’s only how meditative practice affects you that matters. And you are the only one who will ever see the full extent of that.

ANYWAY, the reason I wrote Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate was, in part, to try and kill the notion of the spiritual Superman for good and all. The only way I felt I could do that effectively was to assassinate a specific Eastern spiritual teacher. Since I come from a tradition that believes you don’t find the really important truths by looking outward but by looking inward, it wasn’t good enough for me to do what the authors of the books I mentioned above did and pick out someone else as my target. The teacher whose reputation I was to trash had to be me. Admittedly, I’m not a really good example because so few people actually believe that I am any kind of Great Enlightened Being. Those few that do are mostly a few fries short of a Happy Meal.

Still, since I’ve started becoming more popular I’ve seen people react to me in ways that are a little scary. I’ve only been recognized on the street by random strangers a couple of times. But these days when I walk into a meditation center where they know my work, people’s eyes light up in a freaky way and some even seem to cower when I try to speak to them. To these folks I am no ordinary person. I find that kind of reaction difficult to deal with. Some people are starting to make react to me in ways that only make sense if they have begun to project something ethereal upon the image they carry of me in their minds. They expect things of me that they would never expect of each other. And that’s unfair.

I didn’t really want to write this book. It’s hard work exposing your worst side to public scorn and ridicule. This book was physically painful to write. I had at least half dozen other ideas for a third book that would have been a breeze to write and would have been more commercially bankable. But this book screamed at me to get it done until I had no choice but to obey.

There was something very deep that could only be got to by digging around in my own guts. In doing so I discovered that even the tawdriest portions of my life are not all ugliness and horror. In fact, much to my surprise I found very little of that. There’s a kind of beauty to the truth that transcends whether or not you find that truth to be pleasant or objectionable. Plus there’s some jokes in the book too.

I wanted to write a book that told the truth about teachers in Eastern spiritual traditions. Because there are still a lot of illusions out there about those of us in this game. The public has been conditioned by the media to believe that teachers in Eastern traditions aren’t like our garden-variety preachers, priests, imams and rabbis. Yogis, Gurus and Zen Masters, we’re told, have this special something called “Enlightenment” that makes them transcend the world of ordinary humans. You can make very good money exploiting that twaddle. There’s even one so-called “Roshi” (i.e. Zen Master) who sells gullible rich people five days in his godlike presence for $5,000 on the grounds that by being in proximity to him they just might get some of this Enlightenment thing for themselves. It won’t happen, so you might as well give the money to me instead!

But just because no spiritual teacher is Superman doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot through the practice of meditation. I happen to believe zazen is the only way humanity has to get out of the mess it’s in. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t bother shouting about it.

In this media saturated age where every person’s sleeziest action is captured on digital video and put up on YouTube for all to see two hours later, there is nowhere left for spiritual Supermen to hide the pulleys and wires that enable them to do their magic tricks. It has become urgent that we kill the idea of the spiritual Superman and start looking at how we can accept good spiritual advice even from people who burp and fart and -- oh my god! -- fuck just like we do. If we can’t do that there won’t be any way we can accept good spiritual advice from anybody.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Life is Ugly So Why Not Kill Yourself*

Brad is at Tassajara Zen Monastery where there's no Internet access. Here is an oldie but goodie written for SuicideGirls to tide you over till he gets back.

Often in my writing for SuicideGirls I’ve talked about girls, but I haven’t talked a lot about suicide. Last week a friend of mine attempted it, unsuccessfully thank you Jesus. 25 years ago another friend managed to do it successfully and I’m still bummed about that. When I lived in Chicago my band used to play at a place called Batteries, which was booked by Jim Ellison of the band Material Issue. I was pretty torn up when I found out he’d killed himself in 1996. They played their song Valerie Loves Me at a club I went to this week, which got me thinking even harder about suicide and its consequences. I’ve known a couple people, including an uncle and a co-worker, who managed to commit slow suicide by drinking themselves to death. And I, myself, have come pretty close to doing the deed too.

We used to get into these long philosophical debates around the kitchen table of the punk house near Akron City Hospital where nearly everyone on the scene seemed to hang out 24/7. In one debate it seemed like almost everyone in the room agreed that suicide was a perfectly viable option and that it was up to the individual alone to decide whether to do it or not. I’m not sure I was the only one who disagreed. But I was certainly in the minority. I imagine a lot of “alternative” type people feel somewhat the same way as my friends did, that suicide is an acceptable option.

Intellectually, it’s easy to come up with a convincing argument that suicide is nobody’s business but that of the person who kills herself or himself. But in practical, real world terms this is never the case. Suicide is devastating to everyone whose lives a person touches. No matter how much of a loner you are, there are people who care about you and it’s never easy to deal with someone you care about killing themselves. In the case of my friend Iggy who hung himself in 1983, he seems to have been deliberately trying to hurt his girlfriend who’d recently dumped him. But she dumped him because it was the only way she could think of to make him deal with his alcoholism and general destructiveness. I don’t blame her. I would’ve done the same thing. What he did was really nasty and mean. And I don’t think it really solved his problems.

Most religions forbid suicide and imagine horrible punishments awaiting in the next world for those who take their own lives. If you dug through the Buddhist literature I’m sure you could find some variation on this. There must be a sutra or vinaya text somewhere saying what kind of future incarnation awaits those who commit suicide. But I don’t know about it since I’m a pretty lousy Buddhist scholar. This, in itself says something, though. Because even if such a text exists it’s not greatly emphasized. There are a couple scholarly articles on the Internet about the matter. Here’s one. Here’s another. And here’s one more.

Everyone knows about the
Vietnamese Buddhists who set fire to themselves to protest the Viet Nam War
. For a while there that seemed like one of the most enduring images the general public in the West had of Buddhism. People on this side of the planet had already been taught by their early scholars that Buddhism was a Nihilistic religion filled with talk of suffering and emptiness. So it probably came as no great surprise to hear about Buddhists offing themselves. Buddhism isn’t nihilistic, though. And I don’t think those guys did anyone very much good by going up in flames.

In any case, I’m not terribly concerned with scholarly research or mass opinions. I scanned through those articles I linked to, but I really didn’t read them in depth. It’s interesting to know the history, but not really necessary. Buddhism, as far as I’m concerned, is more about our own experiences than about received wisdom from others. My own experience tells me that suicide is not really a viable option. It ultimately cannot possibly solve the problems it’s intended to solve and it causes a whole lot of unnecessary suffering and grief.

People kill themselves to put an end to their suffering. Ian Curtis of Joy Division did it to end his suffering over his marriage and finances. Pete Ham killed himself because he was suffering over the fate of his band Badfinger, the world’s greatest power pop band. Kurt Cobain killed himself to end his suffering from all those stomach-aches. Of course these are all over-simplifications. But it’s clear that all of these people, as well as anyone else who has ever taken their own lives, did so because they saw it as a way out of suffering. It’s certainly not something you do just for the hell of it.

But the idea that committing suicide will end your suffering comes from the belief that you and the world in which you live are two different things. You believe that you can leave this world and thereby leave suffering behind. But my own sense after years of zazen practice is that this is not true. I’ve spent a long time watching the boundary line between what I call “me” and what I call the rest of the world blur and fade. I’m no longer certain at all where the dividing line is. I’m beginning to even suspect that that guy Buddha may have been right when he said it doesn’t exist at all. In fact I’ve had a few times when this apparently nonsensical notion has come up and bit me on the ass in ways I cannot possibly deny.

So what I’m saying here goes a little further than just the old “the show must go on” type thing where people say you have a responsibility to your friends and family not to go off and shoot your brains out in the greenhouse. You also have a responsibility to yourself and even to the universe as a whole not to do that. Even if committing suicide solves the immediate problem by ending a poor relationship or making it so your stomach doesn’t hurt anymore, the suffering you thought was yours alone spreads out like a wave to those parts of the universe you’ve been taught to think of as separate from you. It’s impossible for me to believe that even the person who dies does not, in some way, continue to suffer just as greatly after suicide as before. I no longer believe it’s possible to leave this world. And that’s as far as I want to speculate about that. Anything I might say about the mechanism involved in how this happens would just be a load of stinky brain farts. Still, I have a very deep and unshakable feeling that this is true.

Anyway, please forgive the grimness of this little piece. What my friend did last week got me thinking hard about the matter. So SuicideGirls readers, don’t kill yourselves! Life is beautiful, so why not eat health foods instead?*

*This title of this article comes from a punk rock compilation album put out around 1979-80 by New Underground Records. The Descendents and Red Cross are featured. I’d love to find a copy of this or its sequel Life Is Beautiful So Why Not Eat Health Foods.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Shooting in Akron

Tomorrow morning I'll be driving to Tassajara Zen Monastery in Carmel Valley, California. There is no Internet in Tassajara. Cell phone signals do not reach into the valley. There is one telephone that is shared by all of the students and guests. Suffice it to say, it will be difficult to reach me. Postal mail does reach Tassajara. But I doubt anyone who reads this is gonna send me a letter.

While I'm away the guy who moderates the comments section will be putting up a few articles I wrote. These have been published elsewhere, but they haven't been seen for a while.

Also, I put up that "Secure Your Mask" piece on SuicideGirls. So if you want to go look at it again there, you can.

Last night I got word of a mass shooting in Akron. The shooter killed seven people and seriously wounded two others before he was killed by police. The full story is available at this link (click here).

I first heard the story from my friend Miki in Japan. I assumed it must have been some sort of drug-related thing. There are, unfortunately, far too many people doing far too many drugs in Akron, Ohio. About an hour later I got a message from my friend Mark saying that most of the shooter's victims were close relatives of a mutual friend of ours.

Since the police have not released any names yet, I'm not going to do that here. I'll call Mark and my mutual friend L. Back in the early 90s I shared a rundown punkrock house in Akron's North Hill neighborhood. I inherited my room from L after she moved out and into a better place. I used to hang out with her sometimes and drink tea. Every guy I knew back then had a thing for L and so did I. She was beautiful and intelligent and radiated a kind of purity and wonderfulness that I find impossible to describe. But if I think about her I can still feel it even though I haven't seen L in over a decade. She ended up moving in with the leader of a band called Sleazy Jesus and the Splatter Pigs. In spite of his band's name, he was a really great guy. It was a good fit.

I don't know what to make of any of this. It appears that the shooter was the boyfriend of L's sister. That's L's sister's boyfriend, not L's boyfriend who was in the band. I don't want to speculate about why this happened. But one cannot help doing so. In any case I'm not going to put my speculations up on this blog.

I hate it — just absolutely hate and despise it — when people try to make some kind of a "dharma lesson" about every damned thing that happens. I hated it when people did that with David Coady. I'm not going to do that now.

I'm full of grief and anger today. I'll be working on that for the next few weeks. L's boyfriend has thanked their friends for their expressions of support but asked that we respect their privacy. So I'm doing so. I ask anyone reading this who either knows L or feels inclined to try and figure out who she is (seriously, please don't, there's a reason I'm not revealing her name) to do the same. Sometimes people need to be left alone and this is one of those times.

I'll chant a chant for L's family and light some incense at the altar down in Tassajara. What else can I do?

Friday, August 05, 2011

Secure Your Own Mask Before Helping Others

I'm doing three gigs in Sacramento, California this weekend. As usual, complete listings for my live appearances are at this handy link, which is always on the left side of this blog at the very top of the list of links. Here's where I'll be this weekend:

•August 6 (Sat) 9am - 5pm SACRAMENTO BUDDHIST MEDITATION GROUP Sacramento, CA, All Day Zazen

•August 7 (Sun) 3pm TIME TESTED BOOKS 1114 21st St, Sacramento, CA book reading

•August 7 (Sun) 7pm SACRAMENTO BUDDHIST MEDITATION GROUP Sacramento, CA Talk & Discussion

Y'all be there, OK?

A few people have responded to this blog by comparing me to this or that teacher and saying those guys are much better because they encourage their followers to help others. One reader advised me to get over myself and, “learn to live for others.” It’s good advice, to be sure. But what exactly does it mean?

One of the complaints often lodged against Zen is that it’s a selfish philosophy and practice. Spiritual teachers of other schools are always talking about how we should give to others, help those in need, lend a hand to our brothers and so on. But when you take a look at Zen literature there’s not a whole lot of that. Oh, Dogen Zenji talks a bit about compassion and sometimes you hear the Metta Sutra, the Buddha’s words on kindness, chanted at Zen temples in America. Although elsewhere in the world this chant is more associated with the Theravada school than with Zen.

Zen, on the other hand, tends to seem self-centered. Rather that hearing a lot about how we should be of service to others, the standard canonical texts of Zen appear to focus on what we need to do to improve our own situation and state of mind. They do sometimes make reference to helping others and saving all beings. But these references are almost always a bit abstract. They say we need to help others, but don’t go very deeply into how that might be done. This focus on the self is ironic considering that Zen is often portrayed as a practice aimed at eradicating the self.

But have you ever glanced up randomly when you’re on an airplane ignoring the flight attendants safety instructions? When they tell you how to use those oxygen masks they say that you should first secure your own mask before helping others. There’s a good reason for this. If the plane is losing oxygen you’re going to be too woozy to be of service to anyone else until you first get your own stuff together. This is the way it is in life as well.

It sounds really sweet when someone tells you that you ought to be selflessly serving those less fortunate than you. It’s a beautiful and highly attractive idea. There’s no better way to make yourself seem really holy than to advocate selflessness. Religious leaders have known for centuries that the best way to cultivate a devoted following who’ll gratefully fill up the collection plate is to spread the word that a truly holy person gives to others until it hurts.

It’s always comforting to be told that the source of the world's troubles is out there, in other people, in our surroundings and circumstances and not in ourselves. Much of what passes for religion these days takes as its underlying unstated assumption and starting point that we ourselves are OK. It’s those other people that need fixing, not us. It’s painful when that assumption is challenged. I understand that because it was painful to me when I first came across the supposedly selfish aspects of Zen.

The underlying problem is the same as the problem with the emergency oxygen masks on airplanes. In our usual condition we are far too woozy to be of much service to anyone else. When our own condition is all messed up our attempts to be helpful are more likely to make things worse than to improve them.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do anything when we see someone is in trouble. We always have to act from the state we’re in at this moment. It’s our duty to do what we can with what we have.

One of the greatest and most useful lessons I’ve learned from Zen practice is how not to help. Zen teachers are often seen as cold. Lots of times in this practice when you go to your teacher in times of distress, instead of being met with warm hugs and reassuring words you’re given the cold shoulder. You're told to take care of the problem yourself. This seems mean, heartless, even cruel.

But as Shakespeare and Nick Lowe noticed sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind (in the right measure). The best way to be truly helpful is often to leave things be. I used to find this all the time when I worked for Tsuburaya Productions. It was often best to allow a bad scheme to fail and then fix it. Jumping into the fray and try to fix things before they broke often was the worst idea. Because then the same thing just kept happening over and over. People learn best from their own mistakes and learn nothing when you fix things for them.

This is not always easy. We want to help. Our self-image is tied up in being a good person and a good person is a helpful person. It damages our ego when we have to let things be instead of jumping in to fix them. Sometimes the hardest thing you can do is to not be helpful. People resent it. They label you as a bad person. Because they don’t want to have to deal with their own shit, they want someone else to deal with it for them. They want Superman to rush in and save the day after they’ve messed things up.

On the other hand it’s important to be of service, to “learn to live for others.” We are not independent objects. We are part of an intimately connected network of sentient and non-sentient beings that stretches all the way to the end of the universe. We never really live just for ourselves, even when we try to do so. To try and live for yourself just causes pain. Not just to others, but to ourselves as well.

The problem is not whether we should live for others or not. The problem is how we should live for others. If our efforts to help end up doing more harm than good, then we aren’t truly living for others any more than the most selfish cad among us lives for himself. We’re just feeding our own egos, establishing a clearer and more fixed self image as a good person.

It’s important to discover how to truly help. And sometimes that means not helping.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


I'm in a train station in Martinez, California waiting for a delayed train to Sacramento. They have WiFi here. So I thought I'd try and answer one of my frequently asked questions, which is, "What music do you listen to these days?" People expect me to rattle off the names of a couple dozen current punkrock acts. But I don't listen to that much punkrock these days.

However, I'm well pleased because I've been discovering a lot of really cool new bands recently. Many of these bands are even current! This is very cool for me because I'd begun to fear that nobody was making music I enjoyed anymore.

I think there must be a name for this genre. Maybe it's "stoner" music? I'm not really sure. Perhaps somebody can tell me.

I don't know a whole lot about any of these bands, unfortunately. And I've never seen any of them live except OM.

Here goes:

I just discovered these guys a few days ago! I was in a record store in Arcata, CA and their album cover just leapt out at me. Amazing. Much of their stuff is far mellower and more Pink Floyd-like than this example.


Another band whose album cover caught my eye. The blurb sited such influences as Blue Cheer and The Stooges. I checked out their videos, liked what I saw and bought the CD.


Yet another band whose album covers I liked. Their music did not disappoint. Their new album Phosphene Dreams is their best, if you ask me. Very Revolver-like. Among their three releases, their second album Invitation to See a Ghost is the runt of the litter, but still has some terrific songs. They only know one chord! Hooray!


Heavy rock that I heard at a record shop in Dallas. Blue Cathedral is the best album if you ask me. Their new one is still amazing, but not quite as great as Blue Cathedral in my view.


I heard this playing over the speakers at a record shop in Atlanta a couple years ago and immediately bought it. I know nothing about the band except that I like them a whole bunch.


These guys are sadly no longer playing. At least as far as I know. They're a British band that I somehow missed out on when they were active in the early to mid 1990s.


Another defunct band. But this song is so wonderful! And sleazy too!


I saw these guys at the Echo Plex in Silver Lake (Los Angeles) a few years ago and I was totally floored. Who needs guitars when you have a bass player and drummer like this? Nobody, that's who!