See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Now We Know Who the Grinch Is

If convincing gullible Americans to send their sons and daughters to their deaths in a piss-ant foreign country for no reason other than the political equivalent of viagra isn't enough, the nut jobs who gave you George W. Bush have a new treat for you -- the "War on Christmas."

If you're dumb enough to think that the Faux News Network has anything to do with news, you may have heard the rantings of Bill O'Reilly and crew this year on the purported War. Of course I've never heard anyone come out against Christmas. What we have here is an attack against the First Amendment rights of large corporations and governmental entities who have chosen to include everyone, not just right-wing Christians, in their celebration of the holidays which have been with us much longer than Christianity. The First Amendment prohibits a state endorsement of religion. To quote Stan Lee, "'Nuff said."

From Media Matters for America: From Monday, November 28, to Friday, December 2, Faux News carried 58 different reports, interviews, and debates on the alleged "war" on Christmas. Coverage ranged from reports of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's (R-IL) recommendation to rename the Capitol Holiday Tree the "Capitol Christmas Tree," to segments titled "Christmas Under Attack" on Faux News Live. In fact, Faux News Live alone devoted 14 reports to various Christmas "war" debates.

Though CNN and MSNBC have lagged behind Faux, they have joined in giving the Faux-fueled controversy attention. MSNBC had 11 mentions of the debate -- though three were mocking references to the controversy on Countdown with Keith Olbermann (whose host singled out Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson's roles in the Christmas crusade for ridicule).

Of the many guests that appeared on Faux News programs to discuss the debate, 18 (many appearing multiple times) endorsed the concept that there is a "war" on Christmas that should be exposed and defeated, whereas only seven either defended more inclusive "holiday" terminology or argued that the "war" on Christmas was overstated.

If credibility is the issue, remember, this: Jerry Falwell appeared five different times on two of the three major cable news channels. Falwell is allied with the conservative legal organization Liberty Counsel, which has been involved in many of the various local Christmas disputes and operates a "Friend of Foe Christmas Campaign" which includes "free legal assistance by Liberty Counsel to individuals facing persecution for celebrating Christmas" and "a pledge to be the 'Friend' to those entities which do not discriminate against Christmas and a 'Foe' to those that do."

While Faux has taken the lead in highlighting this bulshit, media figures on MSNBC and CNN have willingly joined in. For example, on the November 30 edition of MSNBC's The Situation with Tucker Carlson, host Tucker Carlson stated: "[I]f the P.C. Police get their way -- we pray they won't -- you might be singing a different tune to the classic carol, "Oh, Christmas Tree." During a segment on the November 29 broadcast of CNN's The Situation Room, CNN anchor Jack Cafferty asserted: "Put a tree in your house, or put it on your lawn, or put it wherever, and call it whatever you want. But stay the hell out of my Christmas."

Thanks, Jack. But whoah, I like Christmas. There is a warm fuzzy feeling to it that gives us psychological refuge before we are dumped out into the bleak wasteland of January. But for those of you who don't know any better, let me tell you where your holiday came from.

From The biggest holiday of the Ancient Roman World, called Saturnalia, and the birth of the Persian Sun God Mithras, was named the birth festival of Jesus by Pope Leo the Great in 885 A.D. See, the Church was tired of seeing the pagans have all the good parties. December 25th was also the Feast of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun, a cult popular to Romans like Constantine, the Roman Emperor who inflicted the mental illness which is Christianity upon us for all time. Modern estimates based on the census records of Augustus calculate Jesus' actual birth in July although Christians had started to use the Saturnalia as the birthday feast as early as the 300's A.D.

Your Christmas tree? Besides the Celtic tree worship, the 24th of December was the feast day of Saints Adam and Eve when Medieval Churches act out the Genesis story and set up a tree representing the "tree of life" with glass balls representing the fruit. This custom was later associated with Christmas and was taken from Germany to England by PrinceAlbert and to America by Hessian soldiers and later German immigrants. In an 1883 editorial about the newfangled custom the New York Times called the Christmas Tree -- "A rootless, lifeless corpse -- unworthy of the Day..."

Santa Claus? This hybrid of Dutch customs appeared in its modern form in New York in the late 1850s. TheEnglish form was St. Nicholas, a big jolly Bishop in a red suit and theDutch had Kris Kringle, the elf who dropped down your chimney and was alsoknown as "Klaus-in-the-Cinders" or "Cinder-Klaus.'" The first image of himwas drawn in 1859 in the New York Sun by cartoonist Thomas Nast for the Clement Moore poem (Nast also created the Democratic Donkey and Republican Elephant). The modern image was created for a 1930s ad campaign for Coca-Cola by illustrator Haddon Sundblom.) According to NPR, Saint Nicholas was a Turkish ruler in the fourth century A.D. who legendarily tossed a bag of gold through a window to save a man from selling his three daughters into prostitution. Just what he got for the gold is not part of the Christmas story.

The bottom line is, all this stuff is manufactured. That's the way myth is. What we really have here is a cultural and individual psychological need for a break at this time of year. This is the celebration of the winter solstice, which we feel in our bones. Its true soundtrack is Jethro Tull's Songs from the Wood.

So why have the nut jobs decided now is the time to find a "War on Christmas?" Perhaps it is a last-minute sop to the Bush administration, in whom they have lost trust. Maybe they are realizing they were used. George Bush is willing to be Christian if he gets their political capital, but his agenda (or the agenda of Rove or Cheney, depending in which direction you look for his puppetmaster) is about war and money, not religiion, and they have been disappointed.

But I am personally very hurt and insulted that the nut jobs have taken it upon themselves to tell me I am not celebrating my holiday properly. I am perfectly capable of enjoying the winter solstice without pledging loyalty to a death cult.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Why I Do Zazen

Our local Nashville Zen Center has a Yahoo group. It was started before I joined the Center, and my perception is that it was started by them as a way for them to receive notices of events, but it's been left open to all comers in terms of membership, so there are people in there whom I have never seen at a zazen session (and some whom I don't think exist outside of cyberspace). Both these entities and some of the real members are inevitably drawn to do what Yahoo group members do best -- post, on whatever. Sometimes it has to do with Zen. Recently there was a lively debate on vegetarianism, which as interesting as it is, has very little to do with Buddhism (since the historical Buddha died of bad pork, I'm told).

Irrelevance is no stranger to me, and it doesn't bother me. Actually I kind of like these discussions, and they do beat the rantings of the jingoistic homophobe at my office (see prior posts). Lately we are getting postings from group members and group leaders on their own favorite aspects of Buddhism. A recently posted note on spirituality drew my attention because I have aversions to terms like "spiritual," especially when the term is designed as other-worldly. My snotty response drew a reference to Ken Wilber. If you don't know who Ken Wilber is, see if this sets off your bullshit detector: "Ken Wilber is the developer of an integral "theory of everything" that embraces the truths of all the world's great psychological,scientific, philosophical, and spiritual traditions. He founded the Integral Institute, a think-tank for studying issues of science and society, in 2000. Wilber is the author of twenty books." Wow. The theory of everything. And I thought everything lay in reality. Theory is reductionist. But I can see why a theory of everything would take twenty books. At least.

I won't say anything more about Mr. Wilber, but I do love open discussion. And because I was a philosophy major and a lawyer, and sort of a 48-year-old adolescent, I find it hard to stay within the rules of academia when I argue. So saying someone is obviously full of shit won't get me on the debate team. But I get to feel like Johnny Rotten for five minutes.

So, my point was? After having studied every philosophy I could find for the last thirty years and having tried several varieties of Buddhist practice, what has it come down to? I just sit there. Shikantaza.

I discovered Buddhism when I was a very lost college student at the University of Tennessee in the late 1970's. I had long known that I didn't fit into normal society and didn't share its belief systems. So like every other "rebel" of my generation, I spun off the wheel into drinking, recreational chemicals, and rock and roll. Being a philosophy major, I had some other options to pursue. So having known by no later than nine years old that Christianity was a fairy tale right up there with the Easter Bunny (a perceptive ability that kicked in years later when I heard about the Weapons of Mass Destruction), I found Buddhism and Zen in particular appealing. But if there were Zen Buddhists or Buddhists of any kind in Knoxville, TN, in 1979, I couldn't find them, and if I could've found them, wouldn't have been sober enough or focused enough, read mature enough, to practice. But I was inspired.

So when I went to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1980 to study law, I was drawn to the San Francisco Zen Center. My girlfriend and fiancee at the time, a New Jersey jock with no previous interest, was so drawn to them that she lived there and worked in their bakery at Tassajara for several years. I tried sitting with the priests and lay practitioners there, but I was too much into the San Francisco night life and the prospect of being a rich lawyer to really take advantage of my real opportunities. I gave up my first and best chance to practice.

It was six years later in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that I came back to Buddhist practice, through a strange side door. Three years of trying to work for law firms had taught me that I didn't belong there; lawyers are a race of shallow dilettantes, and the American court system is such a farce that a few years in its bowels will teach a perceptive person that the system is warped and rotten beyond redemption. In February, 1986, I was out of a job, sitting around drinking in an adobe apartment wondering what I was going to do with my life. By sheer luck I did all the right things, and my life -- well, didn't change forever just yet, but opened me up to the possibilities that later began to shape who I hope to be now. At that point I quit drinking for the first time in at least eleven years, began to work out for the first time ever, and fell in with the (then) Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists of the NSA.

I fell in with these people because I was suddenly, with my head clear and my body discovering itself, drawn back to the Buddhism I had left behind. Why NSA? Because I looked in the phone book and they were the only ones listed who spoke English. Honestly.

Nichiren Shoshu (which means Nichiren Orthodox, basically) is a school of Japanese Buddhism founded on the ranting of Nichiren, a Zen priest from the twelfth century who was banished for heresy and being a general egoistic shithead. To most Japanese Buddhists, he is a clown. To the NSA, Zen was the devil. I say was because there is no more NSA. Just after I quit them, the head priest of Nichiren Shoshu excommunicated the lay leader of the Soka Gakkai, the Japanese parent organization of the NSA. It appears this was based on the fact that the Soka Gakkai was using Nichiren Buddhism as a tool for social and political power in Japan. They were widely known as a Zen cult. They would approach you on a street corner or in your home like Jehovah's witnesses, because one main way you could achieve merit ultimately resulting in salvation was shakubuku, or proselytizing. At this point in my life, I was a self-employed lawyer, so there was nothing quite so helpful for my professional image as passing out pamphlets on a street corner.

But in the middle of all this cultish bullshit, I discovered a real truth: the power of Buddhist practice. The Nichiren practice consisted of chanting "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo," framed by selections from the Lotus Sutra, in front of a scroll called the Gohonzon, which means "great object of worship." One did gongyo twice a day. I had become a minor leader of sorts in the practice, all of which I abandoned by the fall of 1988, after being an NSA member for 2 1/2 years. And eventually my new purity of mind and body, focused through the power of the practice, led me to stop fighting my perception that the teachings were half true, half bullshit, and leave the group.

I made a mistake when I left. I quit practicing, which means I quit chanting and abandoned all forms of meditation. I became all-powerful in my own mind, which meant that two years later everything had gone to hell again; I finally left Albuquerque in 1993 to return to Tennessee. It was 2004 before I resumed Buddhist practice, and eventually after a false start with the Tibetans returned to Zen after reading Brad Warner's Hardcore Zen, which finally blew away the shit for me and encourage me to resume practice.

The thing about the real truths you discover for yourself is that they always recur as memories, as things you knew before but had forgotten - obvious things that were there the whole time, so how could you have missed them? Having seen through the bullshit of traditional religion at a young age, and having suffered the lies of Nichiren Buddhism and the dreamy obfuscations of the Tibetans, it suddenly became clear to me that all it takes is shikantaza, just sitting, to connect with reality. Just keep your spine straight; you will perceive that all reality radiates outward from a line drawn between your hara and the top of your head. The closer to that line a thing or event is, the more meaningful and important it is to you. This is all you need. You don't need to chant. You don't need to visualize Oprah. You don't need to count your breath. That's all OK but it just adds more crap to the cesspool that's already swirling in your mind. Just let what's already there settle. It won't go away.

The truth is, your mind will never stop swirling. You just have to learn to accept its swirling. Your mind won't stop thinking until your heart stops beating, and you can no more put one that the other on "pause." Neither can you change your personality. I will not stop being the angry, sarcastic individual I am. I just have to look at this character and realize its not me. "Me" is everything and these are all just parts I play. As I mentioned is "No small furry animals," I have to step outside the movie.

So this is where it's all lead me after all these years. All theory is bullshit. All discussion of Zen, or really of philosophy in general, is reductionist, so that whereas the finger may indeed point at the moon, the theory itself is always wrong.

When you pursue a theory of everything, you have already made the first error. If you believe in your theory, you will have completely mistaken the map for the territory, and you will be completely living in your head. The true answer is always "Mu." So for me, I will just sit shikantaza. But if you want to chant to a gonhonzon, go for it; the remnants of the NSA are still out there as the Soka Gakkai of America, I believe, and they're a lot less militant since they were neutered. Just don't get caught up in their shit. Incidentally, the only thing I've discovered that won't work is the guided mediation of the Tibetans and similar groups. My experience is that all that crap will take you down the same delusional path as the Christians.

And if you do that, then God Bless You, Every One.

Friday, December 16, 2005

No small furry animals

At last, a post that's not about furry animals, real or imagined.

This morning I had a dream that led to an experience I can only call a direct perception of reality. These happen periodically. The dream itself was an obvious allegory; I was, in two different situations, an architect who was distressed at the way his buildings had been used. In the first, I was trying to think of how to collapse the roof to destroy the building, and I realized that first I'd better get the people out, and that the people who now owned the building wouldn't be too happy about it anyway. In the second I was in a mall, and I confided to my friend, "I didn't design all this so the neighborhood bank could be in the corner, and that video arcade over there (meanwhile thinking the arcade was OK, but the banks had to go)." My friend was very sympathetic, but I knew she knew I hadn't designed the space, but she loved me anyway and wasn't going to say anything.

Periodically throughout my life, I've had dreams in which I meet up with friends of mine outside of reality, to regroup before we plunge back into Life. It's usually the same people, some I knew in first grade, some who are dead, some whom I haven't seen in years. But the perception is the same: Our present reality is a game, but there is a reality outside of the game where we are real, and we can go back there if just for a moment to be reminded that we need to just hang in there and go on.

I remember that one of the most meaningful experiences I ever had, that has stuck with me over the years, came to me in an altered state when I was about 19 or 20, when I had kicked open the Doors of Perception in a way I would never do again. I suddenly realized that I and every one in the room were characters in a movie, and we could step outside of the movie for a moment, and take a break. Years later, when I saw The Matrix, it seemed to me the perception was coming from the same place (and I'm talking about the original movie, not the lame sequels).

So how does this square with my Zen practice? It doesn't really. In fact, the experiences I have and continue to have in this vein contradict the teachings of Zen,as opposed to the experience. Now I know that a lot of Zen teachers would say that these experiences of which I speak are just thoughts, just dreams, just phantasms of the mind. But the good teachers also tell you to believe in your own experience, not what they say, not what you read. If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.

I came back to Zen after years away because I knew I had to participate in a disciplined practice to have the experiences of clarity I can have sometimes. I have practice other forms of Buddhism over the years, and I was able to have the same perceptions of truth -- always the same perceptions of the same truth which is fundamentally true, at least for me, but which I find very difficult to put into words -- after pursuing almost any form of regular meditation. I came back to Zen because it has the least tenets that I have to reject or thwart in order to pursue the path down which I am consistently drawn. When I have clear realizations now, I realize that I am perceiving the same truths I perceived years ago but have since forgotten. So yes for me that is truth, though I can't tell you what it is. There are no words. You just have to look for yourself.

I belong to a very eclectic Zen group with no teacher, so there are all kinds of beliefs, and lacks of belief, in there. We can all sit in harmony. Then someone does a reading, and nine times out of ten I disagree with the reading; it can be by the most esteemed Buddhist scholars, or a supposed quote from the Buddha himself. But for that moment, I am right by definition, and the reading is wrong.

So for the moment the only message I have is, my clear perception at this moment is that there is some point to all of this, but everything you have been told about it is a lie. All truths are there to mislead you. But there is something there, I know there is.

Excuse me, as the old bumpersticker said, I think my karma just ran over my dogma.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


I realized after my last post just how insensitive I may have been to people genuinely suffering from the medically recognized disease of zemmiphobia. The disease may explain why people from Indonesia are inexpicably terrified by Stephanie's small dog.

WARNING: Sumatrans, Jakartans, etc. This image may be traumatic to you. However, Gizmo is not the great mole rat, but in fact a dog. She is terrified by your flailing and shouting when she appears.

For those of you afflicted with this tragic disorder, it appears the following people really can help:

For your benefit, I am providing a photo of Gizmo. She might eat everything in your frig, but other than that, she is not the enemy.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Cure Zemmiphobia in our Lifetime!

Before I say anything else, in case anyone wonders why I put Adsense on this blog, it isn't that I think I can get rich by putting a Google ad on a blog with this kind of circulation. I was motivated by the promise Google and blogger (who are one and same, if you don't know) to match the ad to the content of your blog. I'm sure this is some sort of a word-counting program, but I do think it's hilarious that the ad Adsense selected for my blog against the YMCA's non-profit status was "Start Your Own Non-Profit Online!" If it stays this hilarious, I'll keep it.

Which is why I think it's time we talked about mole rats. Anyone who sees my profile sees that I have successfully (so far) stolen the image of Rufus the (Hairless) Naked Mole Rat from Disney's Kim Possible. So yes, I am a big Rufus fan. To date I count ten (or thirteen, but I didn't pay for three) Rufus plush toys I have purchased on e-bay.

The truth about the Rufi is, they are evolving from the original Rufus Prime (the one on Kim Possible) through and intermediate stage of chubby, shiftless and mostly alcoholic Rufi, to (as fans of A Sitch in Time know) the eventual emergence of the Rufus 3000, muscular, intelligent Rufi who sound curiously like Worf from Star Trek. These days, they are mostly to be found drinking tequila in stolen UPS trucks. But I digress.

So I was really shocked the other day to discover (unless I am being duped by some widely promulgated internet extremely non-urban legend) that an accepted entry in the list of phobias is Zemmiphobia, defined as Fear of the Great Mole Rat. I'm a little vague on what exactly this is, but as far as I can tell it exists in Sumatra. Just what the Great Mole Rat is, I don't know. The little creature in the first picture, above, is a hairless naked mole rat. They live in Africa and are known to the natives as sand puppies. They are about three inches long, live most of their lives in the dark underground, and live in hives. They are eusexial and are organized like bees, with a queen, workers, drones, etc.

HR1 and Deuce, second pic, don' t know, because they are modern Rufi and in the adult case of HR1 are more interested in the Gin 'n Tonic Blue Beast. As far as they are concerned, Boss Rufus (below) is the Great Mole Rat. But he's just a Mole Rat royalty.

If you go online and research mole rats, you will find they are a variety of animals lumped together by name who are not necessarily related. Naked mole rats are neither moles nor rats, but are closer to the possum and the gerbil. So far I haven't figure out if there is a really big one that lives in Sumatra. If there is, and it's as ugly as the little ones (sorry Boss), I understand why people are afraid of it, when they don't have the cultural advantage of our civilized phobias. Is this an imaginary beast? Are these people living in the 21st century version of the old maps that said "Here Be Dragons?"

I work with a general manager is who the best example I have seen of homophobia. Being heterosexual and having lived in San Francisco, I have never understood why a certain group of males feels compelled to go around ranting about gays. Why some people are so hurt (yes and afraid) by who other people sleep with is not something I have understood. I admit to being that way myself when I was less than sixteen and my sexuality was forming, but what is the excuse in middle age?

Personally, I admire gay people. They seem to be richer and smarter than the rest of us as a whole, and more creative. Not to mention neater, a trait I can only envy. And the ones who are Out are brave. If I were gay, I would be proud to be, and whether the fact that I am not is a matter of heredity or environment is not important.

See, this guy fears non-Christians as much as he fears gays. I am still inclined to think his extreme homophobia is an indication of some sort of deep denial about impulses he has. Sleep-deprived and drug-addicted, he goes through life in a haze that produces bizarre stories which I believe he believes are true. But I am usually these days inclined to think that the motivation of these misfit all-Americans is to validate their own existence with cultures that don't accept them but can't afford to reject them. The Christians. The Patriots (notice how all the warmongers these days never fought in a war?). The heterosexual (whose masculinity, unlike that which is natural and unthinking for those who are truly and comfortably heterosexual, is a matter of forced attainment). These people would all be beaten shitless in the naked jungle, just like the neo-Nazis would be the first thrown into the concentration camps by a real Nazi regime (look at what happened to the anti-Nazi Polish underground after the Soviet takeover).

I am barely touching on a deep subject here, and I intend to come back to it. But just think; make all the homophobes and the GWB wimpass warmongers into zemmiphobes. Think how harmlessly all that negative energy could be discharged.

And in the meantime, in the words of Blue Oyster Cult, Don't Fear the Rufi.