Notes from 2017 – A New Year


At midnight tonight, something changes – in our minds, and nowhere else. It’s like a graffiti artist once wrote on a step of the local library: “Time does not exist, only clocks exist.”

That could be a Buddhist aphorism, like the image of my all time favorite bumper sticker pictured above. Through Buddhist contemplative practice, we come to experience that the contents of our consciousness – the thoughts, emotions, concepts that shape our reality – are fluid and insubstantial. Like rainbows. Like state lines.

State lines exist because legislators, surveyors, and highway departments put signs saying things like “Welcome to Oregon,” at certain points in the landscape. The mountains and rivers and deserts know nothing of state lines, but I need to. The speed limit drops in Oregon, and I’ll get a ticket if I ignore that gap between consensual and ultimate reality.

Today I am thinking of Joseph Campbell who called out one of the core abstractions that separate people. In the last episode of The Power of Myth series, Campbell said the view of our beautiful planet, photographed from space, might well serve as an emblem of the religion of the future.

Image converted using ifftoany

Not anytime soon, I’m afraid. The Power of Myth was released in 1988, a time of optimism and economic expansion. In our current era of fear and economic decline, nationalism, fascism, xenophobia, and class warfare are becoming the new normal. No national or state boundaries are visible from space, but we, collectively, are killing each other over such abstractions, both with weapons and legislation.

I’d love to have started this post with, “Happy New Year,” but I don’t think that’s very likely. Nobody really believes it. There isn’t much “Happy days are here again” in the air. There’s too much bullshit online these days so I won’t add to it. Not for the first time will I say that I think the road ahead was accurately painted by Matthew Arnold in his 1867 poem, Dover Beach. In the last stanza he said:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

More than 100 years ago, Arnold saw our world as struggling through the death throes of a dying age and the birth pangs of a new one. That labor continues.

I hope you and your loved ones survive and thrive in 2017.

Notes on Saint Stephen


Today, December 26, is known as Saint Stephen’s Day, and in the UK, as “Boxing Day.” I’ve never understood the latter term – nor does Wikipedia, which says, “There are competing theories for the origins of the term, none of which are definitive.”

Saint Stephen was the first Christian martyr. A young and zealous deacon in the early church, he was tried for blasphemy. After denouncing the authorities who sat in judgement upon him, he was stoned in the year 34. Saul of Tarsus, who later became Saint Paul, famously held the cloaks of those who threw the stones.

The word, “martyr,” has lost much of its meaning through overuse. Now we use the word for someone who complains a lot. In church history, a few of the early martyrs seemed to choose their fate. There are stories of judges who said, “Look, if you just shut up, I’ll let you go,” but they wouldn’t. They believed that this literal following of Christ was a fast-track ticket to heaven.

The last thing the world needs now is religious zealots of any variety – those willing to use physical or legislative violence to try to destroy other people’s freedom to believe what they want to believe. Atrocities committed in the name of God – any God – are especially heinous. I suspect that much of that sort of violence, like politically motivated violence, boils down to fear. If my self-knowledge is so shallow that I don’t really know where I stand, then a contrary opinion that threatens my world view must be discredited or or silenced.

There are ways other than projecting my views onto some vengeful God. The Dalai Lama, one who humbly but joyously lives by the words he speaks, has said, “We could do without religion, and we could do without ritual, but we cannot survive without kindness.”

-Great words to remember on Boxing Day, which I’m pretty sure has to do with re-gifting rather than post-Christmas pugilism…

The end of the world as we know it

Having slept through Black Friday, the next big event on my calendar is the Mayan apocalypse, scheduled for December 21.

I had no intention of blogging about this until I received the Winter 2012 issue of the University of Oregon Quarterly, where an article by Alice Tallmadge, “Doomsday or Deliverance?” discusses this prophecy in the context of end-of-the-world folklore.

Associate professor Dan Wojcik, director of the UO folklore program, plans to travel to Chichen Itza, one of a huge number of visitors expected for the event, which for some heralds the shift to a higher world age, in the same spirit as the Harmonic Convergence of 1987.  The main organizer of that event, as well as the biggest publicist of 12/21/12, was Jose Arguelles (1939-2011).  In his obituary, the New York Times described his philosophy as “an eclectic amalgm of Mayan and Aztec cosmology, the I Ching, the Book of Revelation, ancient-astronaut narratives, and more.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Alice Tallmadge reports that sales of survivalist goods have spiked in recent months.  A recent Reuters poll found that 15% of people worldwide, and 22% of Americans believe the world will end during their lifetime.  The apocalypse has been a feature of Christian theology from the start, but professor Wojcik notes a recent uptick in secular end-time beliefs:  pandemics, overpopulation, and climate change are seen as threats to the planet without any hope of spiritual redemption.

Things that have a beginning have an end, from gnats, to humans, to stars, and all of creation in the western view of time as linear.  When the world survives a predicted ending date, the error is put down to miscalculation; the expectation persists.  What is it about end-time predictions that continue to fascinate most of us and motivate many believers?  The old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” doesn’t hold in this realm.

I wonder if it parallels our continuing love for disaster film?  Stories of terrible struggle and danger where we get to imagine ourselves among the survivors or among the happily raptured, coming through the ordeal to enjoy “a new heaven and earth.”  The ultimate do-over.

They don’t get any better than one of my all time favorite “disaster films,” made decades before the phrase was coined:  San Francisco (1936), with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Jeanette MacDonald surviving the 1906 earthquake.

Here’s hoping all our December disasters turn out as well!

And finally, for extra credit, here’s a different kind of celebration, with REM performing “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).  Enjoy!

Everything Changes

Lewis Richmond, an ordained Zen priest and author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice, began his studies 40 years ago with the renowned teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.  Richmond relates that one day, after a talk, a student said, “Suzuki Roshi – you’ve talked for an hour, and I haven’t understood a word you’ve said.  Could you please tell me one thing about Buddhism I can understand?”

The master waited for the laughter to die down and said, “Everything changes.”

“Everything changes” is a truth we often would rather forget, but sometimes events make that impossible.  Our oldest dog, Holly, has serious medical issues.  She has come to the end of her life.  This month has been a daily exercise in letting go, in watching her, in trying to gauge the quality of her life and which interventions make sense.

The vet confirms that she’s not in any pain.  She is still feisty and cuddlesome in turn.  She turns up her nose at dog food much of the time, but still likes buttered toast and hot dogs, so antibiotics make sense.  So does medication to increase the blood flow to her kidneys, which are failing.  We take turns administering “subcutaneous fluid replacement therapy” each morning, which was scary at first, but has become a very serene, if bitter-sweet, time to bond with her and reflect.  With quiet music and morning sun slanting into the room, we calm ourselves so Holly calms down and stroke her head while 150 ml of solution flow through the drip.

We brought her home as a puppy when she was eight weeks old.  She’ll be 16 at the end of the month if she lasts that long – we don’t know – it could be days or weeks or months.  It’s hard to believe how quickly sixteen years goes by.

Is there anything that doesn’t change?  All of the major religions say yes, there are the ways to unravel the knot.  A reminder of why there is nothing more important may be Holly’s final gift.

Chants in the Desert

Yesterday NPR interviewed two monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, concerning the Gregorian Chants that are part of the fabric of their lives.

Monastery of Christ in the Desert

The occasion was the release of a CD of their music, “Blessings, Peace, and Harmony.”  Brother Christian Leisy explained that an email from Sony arrived proposing the recording.  “We thought at first it was spam,” he said, “but apparently someone at Sony felt the world wasn’t getting any better, and they wanted to work with a community that might focus on some of the peace elements.”

Chanting does exactly this.  Abbot Phillip Lawrence explained that scientific studies of the effects of contemplative chanting match those of meditative practice:  relaxation, stress reduction, lowered blood pressure and a general sense of wellbeing.

I bought my first album of Gregorian Chants in high school.  Even though I was usually given to rock n roll, there were times when I was drawn to this seemingly strange music with the power to draw me outside of ordinary concerns.  I’ve collected other music like it since then.  Abbot Lawrence understands the power of different types of contemplative music.  He stayed for a time in a Tibetan monastery and found that the deep chanting that is part of that spiritual discipline has the same power as the music he is familiar with.

I highly recommend the interview and the song samples to anyone interested in contemplative music:

Shortwave Memories

When I was twelve, my mother, who claimed she had no luck in contests, won a transistor radio in a raffle and gave it to me. This was a fancy model. With AM, FM, and shortwave bands, a folding antenna, an earphone jack, and a lighted dial, it was perfect for tuning in to exotic locations at night when I was supposed to be sleeping.  Voice of America, BBC, Radio Free Europe, were all within reach.  So was Fresno.  For some reason, I took a shine to a radio evangelist who came on the air every Sunday night at 10:00 from a station in Fresno.

I don’t remember exactly why I liked him.  Perhaps because he was livelier than the minister at the family church – “Can I get a Halleluljah?”  At the same time, he delivered comforting messages.  One night he explained why scripture promised there would not be a nuclear holocaust.  This was a timely message during the Cuban missile crisis.  The guy up the street was digging a fallout shelter in his front yard.  At school we had hydrogen bomb drills (get under your desk and cover your head), but I took it all with calm indulgence.  The worst was not going to happen.  I had it on good authority – the man of God in Fresno guaranteed it.

I spent the next six years deeply engaged with radio.  I got my ham license and was active until I went off to college.  Half a century ago it shrank time and space like the internet does for us now.  I thought of that radio recently when I noticed myself scrolling through international news on my smart phone.  I’ve always loved my gadgets, but I realized the phone lacks the magic of distant stations coming in through the static at night on the glowing radio dial.  It also lacks the assurance I found on that Fresno station on Sunday nights.  Nowadays, most of the people quoting scripture are scary, and for all we can find online, it’s hard to find a convincing voice saying everything will be all right.

“Be a Lamp Unto Yourself”

Happy New Year!!!!  

I thought I would begin the 2012 blogging year with words that have long been an inspiration to me.  They come from advice the Buddha gave his disciple, Ananda:

“Therefore, Ananda, be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth as a lamp; hold fast to the Truth as a refuge.”  – Mahaparinibbana Sutta

Part of the problem, then as now, was knowing the truth when you found it.  The Buddha’s India of 2600 years ago was similar to ours in this respect – it was awash in competing and often conflicting philosophies, teachers, and religions, each claiming special access to the truth.

Gandhara Buddha (4th-5th c.)

Once, as the Buddha passed through a village called Keshaputta, the inhabitants, members of a clan called the Kalamas, approached him for advice.  The Kalamas were seekers of truth.  They were happy to welcome traveling yogis, holy men, and teachers of all sorts, but by the time Buddha arrived, they were thoroughly confused by contradictory teachings from too many “experts.”

In response, the Buddha gave the teaching known as the Kalama Sutta, a fuller version of the advice he later gave Ananda.  In his discourse, the Buddha listed ten ways of knowing that are not sufficient to indicate the truth:  oral history, tradition, scripture, news, ordinary reasoning, dogmatism, common sense, one’s own opinions, expert opinions, opinions of authorities.  Instead, the Buddha asserts our need to test such sources experientially, and trust our own conclusions:

“O Kalamas, do not be satisfied with hearsay or tradition, or any teachings, however they may come to you.  Only when you know in yourself when things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and when adopted and practiced lead to welfare and happiness, should you practice them.  When they lead to virtue, honesty, loving-kindness, clarity, and freedom, then you must follow these.” (as quoted in A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield)

A teaching like this can be difficult with its demand for our own freedom and responsibility.  The teaching seems to throw us back on our own moment by moment awareness.  If we lose our way in the maze of conceptual thought, our own direct experience is one of the few things left to trust.

Most traditions and most of the world’s folklore suggest that we each have a deep way of knowing within us.  It goes by many names:  Higher Power, Buddha Nature, Christ Consciousness, Holy Spirit, Inner Guru.  How and when do we contact this wisdom?

This seems like a very good question to ask at the start of a brand new year.