You Will Get Through This

I spotted this wonderful painted stone in the bushes near the entrance of our local library, on an early morning dog walk this week. How many smiles did this artist generate? How many people’s days were brightened?

The message is simple but intriguing. Get through what? This day? This period of crisis in the life of our nation? This life? Samsara? Whatever other personal burdens each one of us carries?

Such an attitude is a choice, and most of us have to practice long and hard to cultivate such a view, for negativity is easy, especially in times of rapid change like these.

Maybe the question this stone really asks is how do we want to live? The joyful colors of both the paint and the surrounding plants give us a hint of the most skillful answer.

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The Hungry Ghosts of Washington

Hungry Ghost Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c.

There are six realms of being in traditional Buddhist cosmology. Two of these, the human and the animal realms, are visible to our senses. The other four are not. Because all these regions are part of samsara, the world of “original ignorance,” (rather than original sin), even the apparently pleasant places are characterized by suffering, because, to quote the song by Iris Dement, “nothing good ever lasts.” We suffer until we learn to see through our illusions and delusions.

Traditional Buddhists regard the four non-physical regions as subtle astral planes where, just like the physical regions, beings sojourn for longer or shorter periods of time, depending on karma. It is possible to read them inwardly, as archetypal situations as well. Among the “lower realms,” where you don’t want to go, are the hell realms, where the dominant emotion is anger. Violent actions driven by anger can project beings into these regions after this life, yet when we see a person, or ourselves, seething with anger – red in the face, trembling, on the edge of violence, we see what a hell-being looks like, right then, without going anywhere else.

“Hungry ghosts” live in a world of insatiable craving, appetites that can never be satisfied. In eastern iconography, they are pictured with huge, distended bellies and tiny mouths that can never eat or drink enough. This is the realm of addiction, to anything or everything. In western art, Hieronymus Bosch shows us what hungry ghosts look like:

From “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500

We all have a sense of the ravages of addiction to food, drugs, or alchohol. In When Society Becomes an Addict, Anne Wilson Schaef says that life in the U.S. is so stressful that it is impossible not to become addicted to something. Some addictions will land you in jail. Some will win you applause. Some, like addiction to money and power can win you a seat in congress.

Beyond all the rationale, couched in economic terms and political rhetoric, there’s a greed that drives our current political strife that is an insatiable craving for wealth that can never be satisfied. When we read of American oligarchs trying to strip healthcare from millions for tax cuts for people who don’t even need it, remember this image of their inner nature:

Hungry Ghost, Japanese.

What are the odds that such beings can do anything good for their fellows or for the planet?

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Beware the Trolls

NOT THAT KIND OF TROLL
John Bauer, 1912 illustration, public domain

Social media algorithms effectively isolate readers of one type of political news from opposing views; if you follow Fox News, you won’t see MSNBC pop up and vice versa. At the same time, you can usually judge the importance of the “breaking news” of the day by the number of profane, violent, vitriolic comments that follow. I have received, if not death threats, at least death wishes, for comments on Facebook I can’t even remember, and I know I’m not alone in this. Does such overheated rhetoric reflect the national mood? I’ve come to think that in many cases, it does not, though some interests would have us believe it does.

On July 11, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, David Rothkopf, said, “Russia’s primary goal was not to get Trump elected. It was to weaken the United States(emphasis added).

That’s worth pondering at length. It crystalized my sense that a significant part of the national tension over our “house divided” is a creation of social media, and much of it may derive from the focused efforts of foreign trolls.

On the evening of July 11, the PBS Newshour aired a report by Nick Schifrin, with the help of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Inside Russia’sPropaganda Machine. Schifrin reports that for the past two years, the Russian military has run online recruiting adds, offering soldiers a chance to “put down their guns and fight a cyber-war.” 

Schifrin interviewed a former Russian troll, Marat Mindiyarov, outside of a large complex in St. Petersburg which Mindiyarov identified as the headquarters of this effort. He said he had “maybe 20, 30” online identities, but implied that some have hundreds.

At the end of May Newsweek reported that 900,000 blank twitter accounts had popped up as Trump followers that month. They were easy to spot – no photo, no byline, no tweet history. And no way for a casual viewer to determine their place of origin. I initially assumed they were created by Trump’s team. Now I have serious doubts.

Important stories on left leaning Facebook sites draw verbal conflict that is sometimes abusive enough to report. This morning I scrolled down the Fox News Facebook site, and noted similar trolling.

Again, I refer to Rothkopf’s piece, cited above. It’s very much worth considering that our external enemies no longer care if Trump stays or goes – as long as we as a nation stay angry and divided against each other, they have won…

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Happy Fourth of July

The Star Spangled Banner, Currier and Ives, undated.

In a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll, only 77% of Americans correctly identified Great Britain as the country we declared independence from on July 4. Fewer (70%) knew that we did so in 1776.

Aside from what that says about our “informed electorate,” it’s a shame because history, in all it’s messy complexity, becomes more fascinating to me as time goes on.

I was not that interested in colonial American history until I came upon Benson Bobrick’s superb history of the revolution, Angel In the Whirlwind, 2011. In contrast to the present, Bobrick notes that colonial citizenry was generally well informed on matters of politics.

Lest we grow nostalgic for such “good old days,” when (white) men were men, and nobody else had any rights, we can look at another fascinating history, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, by Susan Cheever. We learn that the “shot heard round the world” in 1775 may have been fired by a farmer who was three sheets to the wind. The “minute men” had gathered at 5:30 that morning, at the tavern on Concord green, and by the time the British arrived more than four hours later, they had downed a fair amount of ale.

In a related tidbit, Bobrick says the original duty of congressional pages was to keep the beer steins of our legislators filled. Since reading that, I’ve wondered how many brewskis John Hancock had downed when he famously said, “I’ll sign my name so large that King George will be able to read it without his spectacles.”

This Fourth of July finds most us, I suspect, without the stomach for the usual flag waving piety. Piety is a siren song that traps us into believing our own PR and turning away from difficult questions, and nothing else will serve in times like these. For individuals, tribes, political parties, and nations, there are times when things fall apart. Such crossroad periods end with movement, either toward renewal or destruction, and a key determining factor seems to be a willingness to search for and accept the truth.

This is a time to ponder the words of truth-tellers. I’ve been thinking about this week’s buzzword, “civility,” and realizing that it’s much more than being “nice” or “polite” or “politically correct.” It’s nothing less than a pre-requisite for hearing the truth.

Buried in the paper on September 12, 2001, was a statement by Zen master, Thich Nhat Hahn, a champion of peace and the truth in the world for more than five decades. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, he said, “We will not have peace with the people who did this until we are willing to sit down and ask them why they hate us so much.” After nearly 16 years of constant warfare, with no victory or exit strategy in sight, it is worth remembering his words. As none of our leaders show an inclination to do so, guess what the future holds in store?

Seeds for the divisions that are tearing our nation apart were planted even before our current middle eastern wars, though I think they’re related. Another truth teller, Jimmy Carter told us in 1979 where American Greatness lies and what can destroy it:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.  But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Unless we as individuals and as a nation, including our elected leaders and their moneyed overlords, are willing to sit down and really listen to each other, things will get more and more dysfunctional. It feels like a worldwide transition is underway, and an unsustainable way of life is ending. Historically, such endings and new beginnings occur at times of disaster, war, pestilence. Are such hard landings inevitable?

I like to think not. I like to think that if enough of our leaders had the wisdom and genuine faith of Jimmy Carter and Thich Nhat Hahn, we as people of America and earth, could steer toward a new course, healthier for the the planet and all its creatures.

I’m not optimistic. With our opportunistic leaders, in a nation where a quarter of us don’t know who we fought in our revolution, I’m afraid it will take more disasters to chasten us enough for any kind of concerted, positive action.

So Happy Fourth of July!  Enjoy the day and your family. Have another hotdog or slice of apple pie. I fear that before long we may look back on these as the “good old days,” and remember how good we had it on July 4, 2017…

Posted in #TheResistance, Books, Culture, Current Events, History, Holidays and Festivals, Notes from 2017 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

JUNE 17, 1972- 5IVE MEN ARRESTED FOR BREAKING AND ENTERING DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE HEADQUARTERS AT WATERGATE COMPLEX

As they say, those who forget the past…

slicethelife

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On this day in 1972 what turned into a two year and two month long ‘national nightmare’ began when five men were arrested for breaking and entering the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.

Shortly after midnight on June 17th a security guard at the Watergate, Frank Willis noticed there was tape covering the latches on some of the doors in the complex leading from the underground parking garage to some several offices. Willis removed the tape and gave it no more thought until an hour later when he returned and noticed someone had re-taped those locks again. He then called the police. Five men – Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Baker, James McCord, Frank Sturgis and Eugenio Martinez were found inside the DNC office and arrested and charged with attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications.

At the time it was not a big…

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Truth will out, murder will out – The Two Sisters

“Binnoire,” by John D. Batten, for “English Fairy Tales,” 1898

Our theme, over the next few posts, is folklore and ballads that feature the theme of, “truth will out,”  We begin with a popular Childe Ballad, “The Two Sisters,” that has been covered, under various names, by Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Pentangle, Tom Waits, Loreena McKinnett, Clannad, Steeleye Span, Gillian Welch, and others.

“The Twa Sisters,” Childe ballad #10, was published as a broadside in Northumbria in 1656. A girl is drowned by her sister over love of the same man. Finding her body, a minstrel makes a harp of her breastbone and golden hair that will only play the tale of the murder. The theme is echoed in Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic ballads. There are 21 variants in the British isles, with names that include, “The Miller and the King’s Daughter,” “Binnoire,” “The Cruel Sister,” “The Wind and Rain,” “The Dreadful Wind and Rain,” and “The Bonny Swans.” (1)

Here’s my favorite version, from Jerry Garcia and Dave Grisman at the Warfield Theater in 1992:

From: The Twa Sisters,” Childe Ballads #10C

10C.22 He made a harp of her breast-bone,
Whose sounds would melt a heart of stone.
10C.23 The strings he framed of her yellow hair,
Whose notes made sad the listening ear.
10C.24 He brought it to her father’s hall,
And there was the court assembled all.
10C.25 He laid this harp upon a stone,
And straight it began to play alone.
10C.26 ‘O yonder sits my father, the king,
And yonder sits my mother, the queen.
10C.27 ‘And yonder stands my brother Hugh,
And by him my William, sweet and true.’
10C.28 But the last tune that the harp playd then,
Was ‘Woe to my sister, false Helen!

*****

In the east, we have the concept of karma. In the west we have a comforting theme in folklore, that behind even the most dire events and appearances, there’s a harmony, a natural order that tries to assert itself, the way our bodies, if conditions are right, will push out infection.

Now that our body politic is infected by an American president who would destroy the basic concept of Truth and Fact for his own ends, I find it refreshing to dwell on such tales. Weeds break through concrete. In the end, truth will break through lies and corruption.

Posted in #TheResistance, Current Events, Folklore, Music, Politics, Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Notes on Truth, June edition

The Washington Post reports that Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, has assembled a team with expertise in fields ranging from constitutional law to money laundering. This suggests that the just-announced criminal probe of the president for obstruction of justice may be only the beginning.

This is clearly bad news for the president, a congenital liar, and the GOP, which has risen to power by enabling him. Too bad their mothers never told them what mine did – that lies eventually get found out. My mother was not into philosophical subtleties with the truth. When she asked if I’d pulled the head off my sisters doll, I couldn’t duck the question by citing “alternate facts.”

It’s still a tossup whether our Liar in Chief and his minions will manage their corporatist takeover of the government, or whether our constitutional protections will bring them down first.

This effort means much more than simply removing a malignant leader from the helm of our once-great nation. It will be even harder to restore a respect for Truth in the public sphere. Politicians have always lied and voters have always know it it, but in a culture which values truth more than greed, liars are punished when discovered.

The natural world doesn’t care about our opinions. “Truth will out,” as Shakespeare said. Melting glaciers, rising seas, extreme storms, fires, and droughts don’t listen to climate change deniers.

This idea – that natural law wins in the end – brought to mind songs and stories from many traditions that echo that theme. I have only a vague recollection of most of them, but I am motivated to go on a search for two key reasons:

First, the old stories and songs reflect our collective experience, shaped by the wisdom of generations. They are comforting, like stones worn smooth, and it’s good to remind ourselves of what our ancestors knew for generations – lying doesn’t work in the end.

My second reason for digging into these stories is that it is likely a healthier pastime than checking social media morning and night to see what fresh outrage the Republican party has done.

I already have in mind a first example, one of my favorite old ballads that Garrison Keeler once called, one of the gloomiest songs ever written. That makes it just right for one of the darkest times our nation has ever endured.

Posted in #TheResistance, Climate, Culture, Folklore, Imagination, Myth, oral tradition, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

No Is Not Enough

Klein’s new book, “No is Not Enough,” will be released on June 13. http://www.naomiklein.org/main

James Hillman (1926-2011), who I regard as a mentor, always sought the fantasy, the imagination that underlies the literalism of what we take as facts. Quoting Jung, he said, “The psyche creates reality,” (Revisioning Psychology).

The Buddhist teachers I’ve met would agree. Here is an important discussion of some of the fantasies which underlie our current climate crisis, from an interview with Naomi Klein called “Capitalism versus Climate,” which appeared in the Fall, 2015 issue of Tricycle, The Buddhist Review.

Klein (b. 1970) is a Canadian author, climate activist, and critic of global capitalism who looks underneath the current climate debate. She was invited to the Vatican to give input during the formulation of the Pope’s encyclical on climate change.

In the Tricycle interview, Klein traced our current crisis to the western view of nature as an inert resource to be exploited for human convenience and profit, an outlook that emerged from the confluence of the Age of Reason and the first wave of industrialism. Climate change ultimately results from a false narrative, says Klein:

“It turns out that all this time that we were telling ourselves we were in charge, we were burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gases that were accumulating in the atmosphere. So now comes the earth’s response of climate change, which is a delayed response but a ferocious one that, frankly, puts us in our place. The response is this: ‘You’re just a guest here, and you never were in charge.’”

The vicious cycle that results from our sense of separation creates an insatiable hunger that can never be filled. We see it daily in our headlines. “Part of what fuels manic consumption is the desire to fill gaps in our lives that emerge because of severed connections of various kinds—with community, with one another, and also with the natural world.”

What can turn things around? Only a major shift in values and worldview, says Klein. Climate change is “already a moral catastrophe. We’re already writing off island nations because their GDP isn’t big enough. We’re already basically saying, Sub-Saharan Africa can burn.

Within that sacrifice zone mentality, it’s really easy to imagine the fortressing of our borders. Easy to imagine how our nations will seal themselves off from climate refugees. Climate change is not just about being afraid of sea levels rising. It’s not just about the weather. It’s about how an economic system that glorifies individualism—and one that is based on an often unstated but very real hierarchy of humanity—will respond to heavy weather. And it’s that cocktail that scares me.”

At the same time Klein says she’s hopeful:  “What powerful forces fear most is not what we do as individuals, like changing our lightbulbs or going vegan. They fear what we do when we act together as organized and mobilized groups. As groups we can go after the legitimacy of their profits. This is what the student-led fossil fuel divestment movement is doing, and it has these companies pretty panicked. They care when we come together to block their pipelines. They care when we demand that our governments build the infrastructure that will get us to 100 percent renewable energy.”

Naomi Klein

I’ve already pre-ordered her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.

I’ve also added Naomi Klein’s website to the FirstGate blogroll – her’s is a voice we need to hear at a time when the ruling party of the United States offers only a steady diet of lies.

Posted in #TheResistance, Authors, Books, Climate, Current Events, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments