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

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Pluto and the Meaning of a Name

This whole Pluto thing has been cracking me up for weeks now, but it's been bugging me, too, and I finally figured out why.

As everyone knows, unless they've been on Pluto for the last couple of months, in August the International Astronomical Union in Prague voted to strip Pluto of its long-standing status as a planet. Pluto was discovered in 1930 and immediately named the ninth planet. It was originally thought to be largely than it is, and astronomers for years have pretty much agreed it should never have been named a planet in the first place. It's basically a big rock floating around in a weird orbit, usually outside the orbit of Neptune. On September 9, it was assigned the new designation 13430 by the Minor Planet Center.

What's great is the outcry over Pluto. The IAU was deluged with letters from schoolchildren protesting the "death" of this character, Pluto. Suddenly, the story of the planets, and the mental picture we all had of our solar system as this glowing ball surrounded by nine precisely-labelled little balls was gone. Of course, it was never like that in the first place; our system is a messy one, a big nexus of flaming gas surrounded by a small amount of debris orbiting it at great distances, mostly empty space and a bunch of rocks, eight of which now have the requisites the IAU has defined for planets. My point is that we collectively as a culture had given Pluto an identity. We named this rock after the Roman god of the underworld. Then again there's that dog. So for the children, and for all of us, suddenly one of the comfortable characters we've lived with all our lives is gone.

Now we adults know that Pluto is and always was just a rock, and the news stories have mostly been humorous because we realize that the redesignation of Pluto changes nothing. Yet we still have that feeling on the edge of our perceptions that something is missing. What this really should illustrate for us, in a fairly harmless and palatable way, of the value of a name, or more accurately, of the power of naming something.

Someday I'm going to have to address the whole animal rights/vegetarianism issue, a quagmire I'm not looking forward to. But for now let's just stay close to home and talk about our pets. Readers of this blog know how attached I am to my old cat, Ms. Johnson. If you check the archives for last year, you can find pictures of Stephanie's dog Gizmo. They get treated like people. If you scroll to the bottom of this blog, you can watch a blurry cell phone video of two of my dad's beagles, Mona and Lucky.

Mona and Lucky are excellent illustrations of the power of a name. My dad has had beagles for most of his life. For the most part, these old country guys don't treat their dogs like pets. His beagles have names because they are registered purebreds, but until recently they rarely got called by them. They live mostly in elevated cages in a pen behind his house. If they're lucky they get let out a few times a week to run rabbits, then back in the cages. But suddenly, for whatever reason, he asked me to name Mona about seven months ago, then Lucky got a name, and the two get preferential treatment; they get to come out and play like pets. Now some of the older dogs have acquired more personality, in his eyes; they get called by their names and even old Sam's been let out to play with Lucky. Suddenly these dogs exist.

You should realize, these old guys are known to shoot beagles in the field because they won't perform. They've been treated like, well, animals.

Now broaden the scope a minute. I would never consider eating Ms. Johnson (she'd be old and tough anyway), but there are millions of cats everywhere in America, many of whom are feral, and many of whom live like animals. They starve to death, are tortured to death for experiments, or are generally neglected and/or abused. Some actually do get eaten. I can't take all of this upon my head. I can't be responsible for the fate of all cats. I've made the choice, conscious or not, to give Ms. Johnson a name, to respect her personality. She's a person to me.

The bottom line is, and I'm sure the more astute of you are already waiting for me to spit it out, these creatures, like Pluto have been anthromorphized. Go look at your old English textbook for poetic devices. In other words, these pets, like Pluto, have been endowed with human identities and personalities in our little conceptual worlds. Ms. Johnson has no more personality than the street cats I ignore (OK, I can still look at cats whose names I don't know and wild animals like squirrels and temporarily endow them as characters with personalities without naming them, but that's just an extension). The real lesson here is about how we define our realities. Ms. Johnson is real because I make her real, in my world. To some Asian chef somewhere, she is just overage meat. Gizmo, on the other hand, is porky and might be quite tasty. Pluto is a rock.

This is really not about animals, despite the correllary that PETA is basically a result of category errors in human thinking (go back and find the entry on Gilbert Ryle; Wittgenstein to follow). The lesson is about how we view ourselves. Buddhism teaches that the self is not real; it is our little minds' conceptualization of how it perceives and deals with an amalgamation of traits and really, behaviors, actions, that we can deal with in our frames of perceptions as entities. All that is really useful; people act like people, so it helpful for us to think of them that way. But the bottom line is, they're not real. You're not real in the sense that you're any different from me or Ms. Johnson or Pluto, exception by definition. Your definition, and the cultural one you share with the other self-defined humans. You're a useful conceptualization for the material world. Your life is a story you tell yourself. Your whole reality is like that. Tell yourself a different story and everything changes.

So why is this useful? After all, we live the way we do for a reason. Your brain and your conceptual reality can only handle so much input. I can't shake the hand of an arbitrary batch of attributes, but I have the shake the hand of the guy I want to offer me a job today. I can't be responsible for the life of every stray cat, but I can continue to make Ms. Johnson special and allow her her personality. This is why PETA is a path to despair; the responsibility to save all beings is overwhelming, and one quickly learns to start with that same non-existent self, to get it done. But we can extend the logic the other way, into the larger real world, and maybe benefit from some compassion. It is a little odd that your pet's life means more to you than the lives of those millions who died in the tsunami. Why are those who died in the World Trade Center revered, but the thousands murdered by our neo-Fascist government, in the Middle East and otherwise, are ignored? Because we can make the ones close to us real, and the ones far away, most of whom we have relegated to less-than-human status by demonizing them, are de-anthromorphized, made unreal. We couldn't let ourselves or our "heroes" slaughter them otherwise, could we? How about the millions we put in prison?

In fact the animal rights people have a point. Pigs are as intelligent as dogs, scientists tell us. Yet Gizmo eats pork. We have made our definitions and live our realities by them. I'm not saying this is wrong; we just need to realize that our definitions are user-based and always somewhat arbitary. They are necessary to live our cultural lives as humans, but the attributes we stick on animals and planets are not intrinsic in their existence. They are just part of our labeling process, and the labels can be changed, or ignored.

So is Deuce Rufus more or less real than I am? You choose.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Silly Advertising, Gone; and a Comment on Content

Early this morning I finally broke down and took the Adsense link off this blog; if you look, you'll notice it missing, immediately above. I think I put it up there late last year not long after I started this blog, not so much in the hope that it generate any real revenue, but just to see what ads would be placed. The way it works is, when you first sign up for Adsense and add the html code into your template, it gives you a bunch of public service ads; but after the webcrawlers start to cover your site and pick it up, you get ads which are targeted for the content of your site -- by key words, I guess. So I wanted to see what ads would wind up on a blog which consists mostly of anti-totalitarian politics and Zen Buddhism. It's been amusing; at least half of the ads were for things that were explicity or implicitly disparaged in the content of the blog entries I was writing. But at long last I got tired of giving these weird things ad space on my space (although it's free space), and occasionally I worry about whether people who are new to my writings actually might think I was advocating all this crap. So it's gone.

Oh, and in case you're interested, my total earnings for the entire run of the ads is $11.11, of which I will probably never see a penny; I understand they only start to pay at $100.00. If anyone out there knows how to make them cough up my eleven bucks, please let me know.

You'll also be amused to hear that in the course of revising my template to get Adsense out, I screwed up the html and dropped the entire right column to the bottom of the page; then it took me at least half an hour to find the offending code and get it out (it was an extra html command). By the way, I think that's probably what's been wrong with Brad Warner's blog site the last couple of months, so Brad, if by any chance you read this....

One more thing. I'm quite aware that some of you reading this blog started reading it for its anti-Bush orientation, probably, and lately you've been getting mostly Zen stuff. That's just because it's where I've been and where I've been putting my energy. I seem to have gotten tired of beating my head against the wall, and I suppose for the most part I've been preaching to the choir, anyway. I't really just so obvious and apparent what's going on in this country and the world that I don't see how anyone can not see it for what it is. And without going off on a huge digression, what helps me to see more clearly, on this and every other matter, day by day, is my zazen practice. And no, I'm not advocating that everyone practice zazen or become Buddhist, although some people I highly respect and call my teachers say that yes, Zen is for everyone. I certainly respect that opinion, but I won't say that myself until and unless I come to truly believe that through my practice. But I will say that whatever you can do to see and think clearly, do it now, because now is the time. In the current state of the world, we can't afford to live in illusion. The best analogy I can think of is, do you want to be drunk or stoned when the storm troopers kick in your door, or do you want to be able to handle yourself at your best?

So my less specific advice is, clear out the cobwebs, get your head on straight, and walk erect through the darkness, 'cause that's where we're heading. Although I would love to believe those optimists who think the world is entering into a better age, this contradicts everything I see around me. I think it's pretty obvious that things are gonna get worse before they get better. Be prepared.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Illumination Mountain

On September 3, 2006, at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, at about 11 a.m., my initiation as a Zen Buddhist of the Soto sect took place as scheduled. In the absence of the abbot, my Zaike Tokudo ceremony was performed by three senior students. I had been a little apprehensive about that, but afterwards I came to appreciate that it was a real gesture of acceptance by the sangha. Cherry, Terry and Phil, I can't thank you enough.

Thanks also to my friend Nat who made it down from Nashville to attend the entire sesshin and witness the initation (actually he was already in Atlanta for business but was demoted from the Weston to sleeping in the Zendo for the occassion, where he battled imaginary fleas). That's me third from left, and Nat fifth from left. Terry, the ASZC tenzo (cook/innkeeper) is on the extreme left; Cherry is between Nat and me. The others are all students or disciples at ASZC or elsewhere in Georgia.

As part of the ceremony, I received a wakesa (that's a symbolic robe for lay initiates, the ribbon-like thing around my neck in the picture), some beads, and my Buddhist name, Kozan (diacritical mark missing in this font), which translates as the title of this blog entry. I'm not yet sure about all of the implications of the name, but it sounds heavy. I spoke briefly to the ASZC abbot yesterday; I'd thought he was in on the selection of the name, but he sounded surprised when I told him what it was, and said it was a lot to live up to. I guess I need to grow into it. I thought maybe they picked it because my head is shiny and I need to lose weight. Oh, well. Typically, the Buddhist name is used as part of one's name in relation to sangha activites (i.e., this month's sesshin was led by Honen Phil Hutto). Unfortunately, the pairing of any Japanese name with "Bob" sounds weird. "Kozan Bob" sounds like a Japanese movie cowboy.

There is a lot more to tell about the initiation, but I think I'll let it leak out over time. I have a feeling the implications of the vows will taking some working out, and working on. In a certain sense because the vows aren't commandments, but ongoing commitments to action, the ceremony itself is ongoing. I'm quite aware people go through ceremonies like this all the time and don't take them seriously. I guess it's all a matter of what you want to make of it.

Oh, Phil is missing from the pic above because he took it. He appears below. No, I don't know why I'm clutching my camera case in the bottom pic; tokudo shock, I guess. Oh, again, the woman on the far right in the top photo is Kate Morrissey, a guest from the Athens Zen Center, who took the pic below (me and the senior students after the ceremony). I've added a link to Kate's web page in the Links section to the right; Kate is a singer/songwriter/pianist who'll be peforming in Nashville next month, among other places. Check out her music and tour dates on the page.

More to come.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Meetings with Rev. Hye Wol Sunim

Posted by Picasa Rev. Hye Wol Sunim was first ordained in Sri Lanka in 1977 and took robes in the Korean Zen tradition in 1984. Rev Sunim studied with Buddhist masters in Sri Lanka, Thailand , China, Australia, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan . He arrived in the US in 1991 and is currently creating a Meditation Center in Acton, California. He translates Pali text and teaches the early Pali canon.

Over the course of the last year, I have had the fortune to have several meetings with Rev. Hye Wol Sunim, who just likes to be called Sunim. I have noted his recent presence in Nashville in several recent blog entries. To recap, I first heard him speak when he represented the Nashville Zen Center at the (then-) annual Buddhist Fair here as a guest speaker. More recently, he has been in town for over two weeks as the guest of one of our NZC members, and I have attended several "sits" with him and have had the opportunity to speak to him alone or in small groups on several occasions. What has emerged is an impression of a remarkable man who has lived a life steeped in Buddhism, to an extent most of us could not imagine. His dedication is more than inspiring, but it has taken me a while and a few conversations to figure out what his life and teaching really is, and it is inspiring, if not something any of us could hope to duplicate.

My understanding from reading what I can find on the web is that Sunim has received transmission in two traditions, some kind of Korean Zen (I am fairly ignorant about the different schools, although I know the NZC rituals are based on one of them, which I think is Kwam Um) and Vipassana (a Theravada tradition which is most familiar to some of us through insight meditation). The blend of these traditions is not that unusual or incompatible; the meditation practices of Zen and Vipassana are more similar than those of any other two Buddhist traditions I have encountered. In fact, an offshoot group of the NZC (which I believe is called One Dharma and meets elsewhere here in town) is, I think, based on this same blend. What makes Sunim's teaching and work more remarkable to me is my discovery in my latest conversation with him that he is not so much trying to blend two traditions as to go beneath and behind the traditions to study and teach the original teachings of the Buddha. To the extent that he does this, his teaching is both outside of either tradition and the start of its own.

I am relatively certain that Sunim's method is not unique. After all, he is a Pali scholar and a Buddhist scholar, a man who has the ability to go back and look at the Sutras on which all schools of Buddhism are allegedly based, in the purest form in which they can be ascertained. My understanding from my conversations with him is that he certainly respects the traditions of the schools of Buddhism for what they are, but he thinks that the teachings of the Buddha are beyond all these traditions; that the traditions are merely the stepping-off point, the discipline which begins the road to final realization. He has had the ability to go back and read the sutras in their earliest extant forms and from those derive what he believes to be the true teachings. My own Pali being weak (i.e. nonexistent), I am unable to verify or quarrel with any of his opinions on this, of course. I do admire the devotion and purity of this approach.

Even I know there are problems endemic to trying to ascertain the teachings and intentions fo the Buddha Gautama from these texts. First, he lived to be 80 (reputedly dying of bad pork, by the way) and taught for 50 years. His teachings, which comprise the sutras, are as numerous as the sands of the Ganges. Pretty much all of the schools of Buddhism have seized on one of these sutras as the "highest" teaching of the Buddha, relegating all of the others to "provisional" teachings intended for those of limited understanding. Some schools, like the Nichiren schools have extrapolated beyond the sutras themselves; Nichiren contended that the title of the Lotus Sutra (Myoho Renge Kyo) was itself the highest teaching. Zen contends that the truest teaching of the Buddha occurred outside of the sutras, a wordless transmission from master to disciple embodied in the passing of a flower to Mahakasyapa.

Then again, there is the problem of preserving texts. Even when we get to the oldest texts we can find, how do we know they are accurate? How do we know which were authentic teachings of the Buddha and which were not? Even with my limited knowledge of the subject, I know that Buddhist scholars admit that many sutras could not have been written in the lifetime of the Buddha. The same problem exists in most or all religions. Modern Christianity really cannot be said to have existed before the Council of Nicea in 453 A.D.; before that, Christianity consisted of multiple inconsistent sects, some of which taught doctrines which were absolutely refuted by the Council, and some of whose doctrines differed from the teachings which came to be accepted and embodied in the Bible by minsicule degrees about which only a scholar or a fanatic could care. The political motivations of those who chose what came to be orthodox doctrine can be (and is) debated ab nauseum, but are way beyond the scope of this blog entry. Christians really should read the Aprocrypha to understand more about the choices that were made in ascertaining the "true Word of God," and by whom.

Of course I realize, as I prepare to leave later today for Atlanta for sesshin and for my initiation on Sunday, that Soto Zen is something that evolved after the time of the Buddha; Chan Buddhism originated in China, became something different in Japan, and has become a new animal in the United States, whether it wants to admit it or not. Nonetheless, I am drawn to it as the school and discipline which works best for me. I also see a clear differentiation between Sunim's life work and the teaches and practices of those who want to combine traditions. Like Brad Warner, I find it amusing when an American teacher claims to have mastered three or four traditions, all of which their true adherents devote their lifetimes to and rarely claim to have mastered, by the age of thirty or forty. The martial arts are analagous. Sunim is different, and impressive thereby; he is not combining Zen and Vipassana, but rather going behind them to determine what the original teachings were, to the best of his ability, and his ability is more than mine will ever be. I am 48 years old. I will almost certainly never learn to read Pali. I will most definitely never sit is week-long, 24/7 sleepless sesshin. Sunim has done both of these, although he now thinks that the later is not useful, a counterproductive form of asceticism.

All of the above (my understanding of Sunim's work) came as a result of my question to him about the importance of posture in zazen. Soto teachers that posture is paramount, which comports with my own experience; I had noticed that in the lesson he had just given for some rank beginners, he made no attempt to correct their really lousy posture. Bad posture in zazen is rampant in the NZC, and is almost certainly a result of the fact that most of the newer members have learned to sit without correction and without teachers. My posture is not the best, but it gets worked on every time I go to Atlanta. Sunim says that the posture is the means to an end; a lot of Soto people would say that the posture is in itself both the means and the end. In typical enigmatic Zen fashion, from my own limited experience, I would say that both are true.

One thing I am sure of is that all of us who are students need teachers; not cult leaders, not masters, just someone to give us feedback on our progress. Coaches, if you will. It's a life thing; you can't see yourself from the outside. Yes, you need to rely on yourself and what you learn for yourself, ultimately. If your teacher's teachings begin to contradict your own experience, you must go with the truth you perceive, and reject those teachings and perhaps ultimately that teacher. Yet is is assinine to continue to reinvent the wheel. It is very good to have help along the way. Soto Zen provides that for me at this time, but it is more than helpful, it is deepening, to meet other teachers along the way. For this, I will always be grateful to Sunim. He will have his own followers; I believe he has blessed my pathless path, and whatever it is worth, I would similarly bless his.

Now stop reading and thinking about this and go sit.