Slender Threads

Dew on Spider Web by Luc Vlatour, Creative Commons.

“Sometimes a life can hang by such a slender thread.” – Kate Wolf

Yesterday, around dinner time, I took my wife to the emergency room with severe chest pains. This morning, a little before 9:00, she texted that she was going into surgery in 45 minutes. I hurried over, but had to drive to the roof of the parking garage to find a spot.

As I sprinted down the steps, I spotted an acquaintance, who I’d seen earlier in the week at a meeting, who did not look well at all. He was entering the oncology building. I called his name but he didn’t hear me.

By the end of the day, my wife was stable. Though not out of trouble or the hospital, her prospects are encouraging. Not so, I believe, the friend I saw. He’s elderly but notable for a heart that is both wise and kind. This is a man who clearly does not have much money. Exactly the kind of man that the oligarchs want to strip of healthcare.

I thought of what Buddha said at the end of the Diamond Sutra:

“So I say to you –
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

It was a sullen day, and windy, with a threatening sky. The kind of weather that reminds you of mortality, even without anything explicit on the horizon. Buddha didn’t flinch from difficult truths, but he did make clear, as the Dalai Lama continues to do today, that in the face of this fleeting world, nothing matters more than kindness to other living beings.

In the end – and we shall all make this discovery, sooner than we would wish – everyone’s life is a slender thread, and when it breaks, bank accounts do not matter. Nobility of soul does – very, very much.

The War on Beauty

I was in grade school during the height of the cold war, the decade of duck and cover hydrogen bomb drills and Nikita Kruschchev pounding his shoe and promising to bury us. But what I feared most from the “red menace” wasn’t nuclear incineration. It was life in a world like the Life Magazine photos of Moscow: grey, cold, barren, and devoid of beauty. Two things brought this to mind recently.

The first was an article in the New York Times, How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution. Charles Darwin believed that animals “could appreciate beauty for its own sake,” and behave accordingly, in ways that far exceed the utilitarian requirements of survival and reproduction. Mocked by his peers, this aspect of his theory was neglected – until now. A new generation of biologists believe that “Beauty…does not have to be a proxy for health or advantageous genes. Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”

The other news that brought the barrenness of 1950’s Moscow to mind was anything but a delightful story of exuberant animals. It was an account of how, with open gates but furloughed rangers, some visitors have been trashing our National Parks. I was particularly saddened to read of the vandalism at Joshua Tree National Park, a place with great meaning for me.

Joshua tree cut down by vandals. NPS photo, Public Domain

Visitors have cut down trees, graffitied rocks, driven off-road vehicles over fragile desert soil, and camped under rare trees. Scientists say the Joshua trees face possible extinction by 2100 due to loss of habitat to climate change. In October, Park Superintendent, David Smith, told National Geographic, “We’re just in crisis mode right now.” The willful destruction during the shutdown is simply accelerating the destruction of a magnificent desert refuge the size of Delaware.

You have to wonder why, unlike in every previous government shutdown, the current administration chose to leave the National Park gates open even as personnel were furloughed. Were they simply stupid? Or was this a move that parallels their attack on so much else that makes life for the vast majority of us worth living: clean water, clean air, education, health care, and so much more?

Although Trump is not capable of strategic thinking, some of his puppet masters are, and I often wonder if they don’t want a world like the photos I saw of life in Moscow in the 50’s – a dispirited, sick, hungry, uneducated peasantry, obliged to work until they drop, for beggars pay at meaningless jobs.

James Hillman said the lack of beauty in contemporary public life is pathological. I would add that it’s part of a cluster of pathologies, that pass for sanity in minds of many of those with plenty of greed and lust for power, but no imagination.

A high school friend, a poet, didn’t hold back in a piece he published in the school literary magazine, with this description of our dean, which I’ve never forgotten:

His triple breasted chin,
arranged in folds upon his chest,
he blunts my life with a technicality.

During the ’60’s, a time of excess as well as exuberant celebrations of imagination and beauty, Phil Ochs, one of the best protest singers of the era, wrote a poem for the back of his last album, with a line that read:

You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty,
Ah but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.

That is a beautiful hint and instruction!

An End of Year Blessing from Anam Thubten

I wrote a number of posts about Anam Thubten in the early years of this blog. Not so many lately, though that may change in the future.

I’ve followed his teachings for the last dozen years – via his books, his daylong retreats in Sacramento (which happen about once a year), and his recorded talks on the Dharmata Foundation website.

His profound gift is his ability to present some of the oldest and most revered teachings in Tibetan Buddhism in clear and accessible terms to audiences around the world.

In this interview, posted on Buddistdoor.net on December 20, he shared some of his suggestions and hopes for the coming year:

As we bid farewell to 2018 and move into the New Year of 2019, Rinpoche deeply wishes that we all meditate, regardless of spiritual belief or affiliation, and to commit to looking inward. “There are lots of wonderful teachers. And they can be regular people…as long as they have a good heart.” 

The world is in a new period of uncertainty, and the energy of the globe is shifting unpredictably. In this context Rinpoche believes that the words “optimism” and “pessimism” are not helpful. “I wouldn’t say that we should be optimistic in the sense we try to shut off our minds and tell ourselves everything is hunky-dory. Yet too much pessimism leads to paralysis, and is an excuse for inaction. What we need is hope, an attitude of transformation and dealing with the urgent issues facing us. I’d like to have hope and faith in humanity rather than optimism.”

Last night I dreamed Roy Rogers died…

Roy Rogers was my first boyhood hero. For a time, around the age of three or four, I refused to answer to “Morgan,” insisting that my parents call me Roy.

Me as Roy, probably age 4.

No matter that any residual appreciation for him collapsed during the Vietnam war, after he came out as a hawk – Roy Rogers was the first person who carried for me, the imagination of what a life well lived might look like.

Upon waking, it seemed strange that I should dream of his death as a present day event, when it happened 20 years ago. Not so strange, after a moment’s reflection, as the nation watches, in real time, the complete collapse of any remaining shred of heroism among our ruling class and their paid minions in Washington. We still live in the world T.S. Eliot described in “The Waste Land.”

There is no way this ends well!

For 20 years, I followed the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), a Hindu master who moved to this country in 1920, to found an international organization that teaches the core unity of all religions and gives instruction in meditation practices to enable people to make this discovery for themselves.

In May, 1940, he gave a talk that was later published as a pamphlet called World Crisis. In it, he said:

“a great crisis is going to come, a crisis such as never before has hit this country…There is a world revolution going on. It will change the financial system. In the karmic firmament of America I see one beautiful sign; that no matter what the world goes through, she will be better off than most other countries. But America will experience widespread misery, suffering, and changes just the same. You are used to the better things of life, and when you are obliged to live simply, you won’t like it. It is not easy to be poor after being rich. You have no idea how this change is going to affect you through the years. Never before in the history of this land has there been so deep a contrast in living standards as will visit this country – the contrast between riches and poverty.”

I remember in college, how I used to marvel at the tragic heroes and their flaws, in Greek Tragedies and in Shakespeare – how their every action to escape their fate led them deeper into the jaws of the trap. We are seeing in real time, how a nation can tread the same course to disaster.

Last night’s dream reminded me of the discussions one of my latter day heroes, Joseph Campbell held with Bill Moyer’s in the mid 80’s. In their dialog on the “Heroes Adventure,” there was this exchange:

MOYERS: “Given what you know about human beings, is it conceivable that there is a port of wisdom beyond the conflicts of truth and illusion by which our lives can be put back together again? Can we develop new models?”

CAMPBELL: “They’re already here, in the religions. All religions have been true for their time. If you can recognize the enduring aspect of their truth and separate it from the temporal applications, you’ve got it…One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.”

MOYERS: “Not the first cause, but a higher cause?”

CAMPBELL: “I would say, a more inward cause. ‘Higher’ is just up there, and there is no ‘up there.’ We know that. That old man up there has been blown away. You’ve got to find the Force within you.”

No single suggestion seems more relevant for our times: “You’ve got to find the Force within you.”

Stories…again.

Pre-Columbian, Mexico. At Art Institute of Chicago. Public Domain.

Yesterday, at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s Club, someone asked what I blog about – an excellent question. Though it might not be obvious looking at eight years worth of posts here, it took only a moment to answer.

The constant thread running through almost all the posts here was stated like this by 20th century poet, Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

One area of fascination for me is the way both modern physics and ancient Buddhist tenets agree that our seemingly solid and stable world is anything but. “Out there” we have only complex patterns of swirling light and energy. It’s the same “in here.” Our limited physical senses give us an illusory experience of a solid world, and we make up stories about it. Many of them deal with simple survival: red means stop and green means go; every part of the oleander is poisonous; if you face the rising sun, north is left and south is right.

Of far greater interest are the stories individuals and cultures tell themselves about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing there. That’s where we get into trouble, by and large, as a glance at any newspaper will confirm.

I’ve never forgotten the account of a young boy, a fan of The Six-Million Dollar Man, a TV show in the late 70’s, that told of an astronaut, badly injured in a crash, who received bionic implants during surgery, which gave him super-powers. The boy decided to jump off the roof of his home, thinking that if he hurt himself badly enough, he might get super powers. He lived, but spent a long time in traction.

Stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and they can kill  individuals, cultures, and as we are coming to see, entire species.

*****

Last night the sun, through a brown haze, was red when it set. This morning, through a brown haze, the sun was red when it rose. When we left the house at 7:15 to take the dogs for a walk, there was fine dusting of ash on the cars. Though Redding is 170 miles north, and Yosemite almost 200 miles south, there is no way to forget that California and much of the west is burning in what has become a year round fire season.

The northern California fire chief said fires of this intensity are new, and sadly, appear to be a “new normal.” During a summer of worldwide weather extremes, the scientific community is united in saying climate change is not in the future – it’s here. At the same time several pastors have said that God is angry because California tolerates gay people.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and stories can kill individuals, cultures, and maybe our entire species.

If they could talk, what would the lead lemmings tell their comrades when the edge of the cliff came into view?

The Crazy Wisdom of Mr. Rogers

Fred Rogers and fan in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” this summer’s biographical film about Fred Rogers, he says “Love – or its absence, is all that really matters.” The sincerity and quiet strength of the man, an ordained minister who chose to express this philosophy through the medium of children’s television, is one of the reasons the movie won a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

As I watched Rogers’ interaction with children, the only comparison I could think of was clips I’ve seen of the Dalai Lama with young people. Both men – bodhisattvas by any reckoning – never lost their connection to the wonders and terrors of childhood.

I also thought of Saint Francis during the scene of Fred Rogers with Koko the Gorilla, who watched him on TV and was a fan.

At the end of the movie, we see a world that is changing for the worse. In a clip from a Fox News broadcast, commentators condemn Rogers for teaching children that they are all precious and lovable just the way they are. Let that sink in for a moment!

After his death, protestors gathered across from his memorial service to condemned him, not because they thought he was gay (he wasn’t), but because he accepted gays. One child in the crowd who looked miserable – in contrast to the children on Mr. Rogers’ show – held a sign reading, “God Hates America.” If Rogers had been there, he might have reminded the child and his parents that Jesus’ response to everyone he met was, “Neither do I condemn you.”

“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired 50 years ago this summer. Watching this movie, I thought of the voice-over during the opening scene of Gandhi: “People of the future will find it hard to believe that such a man existed.”

Fifty years ago, America felt like felt like a nation torn apart: an escalating war in Vietnam; the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots that followed; the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the police riot at the Democratic convention, were punctuation marks in a year of one bad headline after another. Frightening times, yes, but no one living then would have ever imagined a summer in which we’d see children caged in concentration camps as a fascist administration, emulating the tactics of 20th century dictators, tries to stir up anger and fear at a people convenient to scapegoat. Fred Rogers would have been heartbroken!

What would he have done?

The movie showed Rogers’ testimony before a congressional committee that seemed determined to gut funding for PBS. With quiet sincerity, in a brief speech, he convinced them to do otherwise. He would have certainly found a way to speak before congress.

Beyond that, it’s impossible to say, but it seems that those who behave as heroes in the face of naked evil – people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and others, find ways to avoid growing numb in the face of repeated outrage, while keeping the anger alive, but under control, so it can be harnessed as energy.

One thing Mr. Rogers would have certainly told us is this: in the 2014 midterm elections, only seven states saw a voter turnout higher than 50% (source: The United States Elections Project). He would have made certain that every child in the audience understood how important it is that this November be different.

Now that Rogers is gone, it’s up to us to figure it out for ourselves!

A Buddhist Statement on the Separation of Families

“Whatever the legal status of those attempting to enter the US, separating children from their parents is a contravention of basic human rights. Parents seeking asylum make long, dangerous and arduous journeys in an attempt to find safety and well-being for their precious children. Ripping these vulnerable children from their parents is cruel, inhumane, and against the principles of compassion and mercy espoused by all religious traditions…

Separating children from their parents and holding them in detention inflicts terrible and needless trauma and stress on young children that hampers and damages their development, causing long-term damage. This policy being employed on United States soil is morally unconscionable. That such egregious actions be employed as a deterrent for families seeking entry and/or asylum in the U.S. – using the sacred bond between innocent youth and their parents – is unjustifiable on any level.”

A Statement on the Separation of Families.

The Crazy Wisdom of R. Mutt

In the first of this series of posts, Crazy Wisdom is No Bull, I spoke of Picasso’s leap of vision and imagination in 1942, when he sculpted a bull’s head by swapping the usual positions of a bicycle seat and handlebars. Nowadays we call such creations “found object sculptures,” but Picasso and other artists of his time called them, “readymades,” a name coined by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).

Marcel Duchamp 1952 (Photo by Eliot Elisofon//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Though Picasso gained more notoriety, Duchamp was the more revolutionary artist, and shaped the course of 20th century art more profoundly. “By challenging the very notion of what is art, his first ‘readymades’ sent shock waves across the art world that can still be felt today…Duchamp is generally considered to be the father of Conceptual Art.” (1)

Duchamp, who was even better at mathematics in school than art, rapidly lost interest in art that appealed to the eyes only. “Instead, Duchamp wanted to use art to serve the mind.” (2)   Continue reading