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

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Happy Birthday, Ratzaz Diaries!

It's been a hell of a last few weeks, but things have gotten better since I wrote last. I think I share the common perception that just when things are going well, something has to go wrong. On October 9, I went from my previous job, which was always in my mind intended to be provisional, to one which may offer a little more stability, and everything seemed to be firmly if slowly on the upswing. Then, on the evening of October 16, coming home from the first day of the second week of the new job, I had a head-on collision in my 1993 Le Baron a block and a half from my house that left all the drivers and passengers uninjured but totalled my car.

I don't know about you, but shopping for used cars under time pressure is not my favorite activity. Anyway, as I write, I have a car (albeit a high-mileage one) that I like even better than the last one, this one a 1995 Buick Regal 2-dr. with a 3800 engine; the only thing that doesn't work properly so far is the horn, which is just frustrating for someone with my temperament. I'm gonna have to get that fixed before someone runs over me or I blow a gasket trying to shout at some driver who can't hear me. Or then I could give up the shouting, but that's a big order.

So for the first time in two weeks I have the calm and the opportunity to sit down and realize that as of last Monday, October 23, this blog is a year old. Although I write with the realization that I have no proper back-up of this site and the whole year's worth of writing could vanish into cyberspace at any moment, I look back and realize that I've changed over the last year. Firmly esconced in middle age, it often seems that not much changes in a year, but this blog enables me to see that that's not true. It's not so much that jobs, cars, and situations change -- I've always been unstable in that regard -- but that my points of view have. A year ago, I started this blog mostly to relieve the pressure of working in an environment that was driving me crazy, with people I cared about but who couldn't have been further from my perspective on the world, most notably a general manager whose frustration with the inadequacy of his own life had driven him full-blown into Faux News delusion and a passionate hatred of the people in his world who mirrored his own defects. I eventually left there in January and spent a much-needed six months stewing in my own juices and eventually finding some of the enviromental factors I'd been needing, such as my involvment with the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and some very special people, in and out of the Zen world.

I now live in a much larger world than I did a year ago, which relieves a lot of the pressure. There are definitely some people I need to thank, in no order: the people at the ASZC, especially Abbott Michael Elliston, Terry Sutton and Cherry Zimmer; my friend Kate Morrissey, whose MySpace banner now proudly graces the bottom of this page (down there by the hit counter), whose music and friendship has come to mean a lot to me in the last couple of months; my friends Joe Khoury and Kelly Butler from the last job; Nashville Buddhists Jennye Greene, Lisa Ernst and Rachel, whose inspiration prevents me from abandoning all hope of Sangha; my father and my aunts Mary and Mozelle, who all in their very different ways lead me to appreciate the value of the generation Tom Brokaw termed America's greatest, whose absolute steadfastness will never be equalled by us; and my friends through the years, Joe and Stephanie, Tom and Peggy who continue to be there. Then there's the reappearance from the distant past of my friend Jim Lydecker, whose ongoing inquisition into the world during years when I lay dormant both inspires me and lets me abbreviate my research. All of these people have aided in making this year one of growth and, yes, relative enlightenment.

A year ago, I was mostly lashing out at forces I saw as oppressive, particularly the evil empire hidden within the depths of the Bush administration. My perspective has grown, influenced by two factors. The first and obvious one is the sane counsel of my Buddhist teachers (and before I omit him, Brad Warner's persistent sanity in the face of bullshit from every side keeps me grounded, even when I cringe when he mentions politics, which he shouldn't. Ever.). The second is my friend Jim's already-digested summaries of the body of research and prediction which gets lumped together under the sobriquet of Peak Oil). Jim probably thinks I'm ignoring the mass of data and opinion he keeps sending me, which I'm not; I'm just not sure what to say. I'm not going to take the time here to discuss the whole Peak Oil thing, which I've been trying to figure out how to blog for a couple of months because the start-up is huge. To over-digest, man's running out of fossil fuels is sooner than we think and inevitable; and with renewable resources able to support only about 1/17 of the world's current population, the coming disaster is of unprecedented proportion. After reviewing this research, it seems inevitable to me that during our lifetimes, human culture will begin a spiral downward, back into the stone age. If man lives he won't be recognizable as the animal he is now. And with the earth's resources gone, there will never be another intelligent species, ever. We're all there will ever be, and we're blowing it.

My reaction to all this is not Jim's or Kate's -- save the Earth! -- because it just seems to me it's too late. It's gonna happen. We've seen the peak of the curve, and it's our decendents we've doomed to a hellish existence. I guess I take this more calmly than most, having resolved personally to have none. With me it just makes me appreciate the fact of when and how I've lived. Do you really understand how much luxury it takes to be able to do zazen? Our ancestors and now seemingly our decendants have and will spent time fighting other predators in the forest; meditation was not an option or an issue. Seen from that perspective, the Buddha's search for truth is not a universal human endeavor but the indulgence of a spoiled prince. Or conversely, what luxurious lives we have, to be able to squander the same in drug addiction or steak dinners, or oh yeah, the internet.

From a Zen perspective, the only moment is the present one, and history is just a story we tell. Yet it is humbling that to see that in the story of humanity, we are not the protagonists but the spoiled offspring of the same. Our duty to our predecessors is not to save the world; it's too late. The cause of the world's demise is not the Bush administration; although they, at the helm of the world-destroying war machine, are the sword of Shiva, they are only tools of the greed encrusted in the unconscious corporations. And even those vast monoliths of wealth and death are but the embodiment of the same instincts for power, aggression, competition, survival and indulgence which in themselves raised humankind from the jungle to the boardroom.

I am saying that our destruction was always implicit in our ascendance; it is all living-and-dying. There is nothing we can be but what we are. But we can sit silently for a moment to appreciate that fact, and we can use our time wisely. And as I continue to write this blog, now that I have time and peace again (due to the same factors as above), I hope to continue to do that. And just remember, as long as YouTube lives, you can always go the blog entry previous to this and watch Bettie Page dance. That dance may well be the peak of all our endeavors.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

And now for the real Bettie Page...

Just a follow-up to the previous post. I doubt any of you are providing this blog to very young children anyway, but if so, this is probably not the one to start them with. Unless you also supply them with cigars and whiskey....

This clip reminds me of something I saw on a machine for a quarter in tent in the county fair when I was a child; they chased me out of the tent when they saw me watching it. I was terrified of sex for years (OK, months) afterward.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page lacks Punk: Attitude

It would be entertaining though not incredibly challenging to play "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" on these two movies; fortuitously I watched the bonus disc to Punk: Attitude the night after The Notorious Bettie Page, which helped me figure out what was disturbing me about the latter.

Both of these movies are highly recommended. Bettie Page is if nothing else a masterpiece of cinematography; filmmaker Mary Harron has done a great job of bringing an indealized version of the fifties into the viewer's space -- idealized not in a "Leave It to Beaver" or Back to the Future sense, but as actually remembered by those of us with a marginal temporal connection to the time. For me, it's the late forties and fifties as seen in my parent's photographs of their early married days, or in the beach movie or romantic comedies of the late fifties and early sixties. Most of the film is black and white, with occasional very stylized uses of color; for the most part, Nashville and New York are black and white, but we burst into a modern incarnation of technicolor whenever Bettie goes to Miami. This is one of the best examples I've seen of a filmmaker taking you visually into that period.

If anyone doesn't know, The Notorious Bettie Page is the story of a little Christian girl from Nashville who goes to New York to study acting and becomes the pinup queen of the late forties and early fifties. Under the aegis of Irving Claw, the aspiring actress is led further into the underbelly of what passed at the time as borderline porn, the bondage and submission industry. Who hasn't seen Bettie trussed up with a ball gag or in leather corsets and thigh-high black boots? She was the anti-Marilyn, the dark angel of the locker room. Her photos were sold under the counter at the newstand before the industry began to flower and loosen up right after Playboy began publication in the mid-fifties. Shortly after the industry legitimized, Bettie's career was over; Irving Claw was dragged before a Senate subcommittee (by another famous Tennessean, ironically, the McCarthey-esque Estes Kefauver, who has an office building here named after him) for U.S. Postal violations and his livelihood curtailed. As depicted in the movie, after not having to testify, Bettie seems to have either an understanding of or a guilt trip over her deeds and career, and flees back into the arms of Jesus. Movie over.

Gretchen Moll's depiction of Bettie, regardless of its accuracy, is riveting. You can't take your eyes off her, even when she is clothed (which as you might guess is not for all of the movie). As directed by filmmaker Harron, Bettie is a small-town girl and innocent nudist who is able to doublethink herself into ignoring the darker side of her industry. Let me caution you that the movie is based in part on a book I haven't read, so I don't know how historically or personally accurate the Harron/Moll depiction of Bettie is. The movie Bettie is not so much naive as accepting. At some point I think she realizes the fans of her artistic output are not as pure as she pretends, yet she accepts her role. Much of the mystique of Bettie Page over the years has been that even at her S&M darkest, she retains a look of fun; she never seems to think she is doing anything dirty -- more the naughty girl. However, the short film of the real Bettie stripping included in the bonus materials gives me a slightly different read on her face -- one more conducive with the film's rather banal allusion to possible childhood molestation. Unlike Gretchen Moll's Bettie, the real Bettie has a look on her face I've seen on people in similar roles in the real world.

The puzzling thing about this movie immediately after I watched it was the sense of something lacking -- something that appears in the face of the real Bettie. It is a very literal retelling of her life, literal not in the sense of being accurate, but of being very much an outside shot of its protagonist. Could Bettie really have been that unaware of her social impact and the archetype she helped create? Mary Harron certainly isn't, so it's up to the viewer to figure out why the movie was made this way. The missing link was made more missing for me last night when I watched the second disc of Punk: Attitude. Don Letts' film is the best documentary I've seen yet on punk. Normally, this kind of mass cultural overview disappoints me, so I was reluctant to watch the film, but Letts has done a great job.

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Punk: Attitude chronciles the history of punk from its arising from early rock and roll through the darker side of the sixties, through its inception through seminal bands like the Velvet Underground and the MC5, its natal period during the glam and glitter rock periods of the early seventies, and then its birth in 1975. Foreshadowed by the New York Dolls, my favorite rock and roll band of all time, punk found full expression in the Ramones, the Clash and the Sex Pistols, then after the Pistols' demise went underground into hardcore, and in my opinion, died. The fimmaker makes a case for punk's re-emergence in the Seattle scene in 1991, but I have my own prejudices against that era's icons like Kurt Cobain, perhaps the most overrated dead pop star of all time. Nevertheless, no one who lived through the punk scene of the late seventies and very early eighties can fail to be delighted by the film, and for the rest of you, it's a great history lesson. The film makes points with me by realizing the glam rock connection, including mention of obscure bands like Mott the Hoople along with the obvious like Iggy and the Stooges (but what about T. Rex? what about Slade? What about Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics? but I'm nit-picking).

The connection to all this is, watching the bonus interviews for Punk: Attitude last night, who appears, being interviewed along with Legs McNeill about the founding of Punk magazine (the apparent source of the genre sobriquet), but Mary Harron? So the filmmaker who portrays the relatively innocent Bettie was right there at the inception of the punk rock movement at CBGB's. Not being the most sophisticated film fan, I had to go online to learn that Harron was also responsible for I Shot Andy Warhol (a murky film featuring good acting by Bettie Page supporting actress Lily Taylor) and a very good film, American Psycho. I've always that although American Psycho was a very good film, it's nowhere as good as the novel by Brett Easton Ellis, because in the book you're never sure if all this killing is really going on. So in a sense, the film shares with Bettie Page the characterist of over-literal-ness.

One of the elements of the punk rock movement which has survived into the modern mainstream is the incorporation of leather and bondage gear. What began to emerge into the mainstream with Bettie came into the youth movement with the punk movement of which Mary Harron was apparently very much a part, then came to the forefront with Madonna, etc, and is now an element of the youth market. The children of the Senators who hounded Irving Claw out of business are now buying Bettie-style gear for their children.

Punk: Attitude is as an intelligent an interpretation of punk as could be tolerated, and in fact some of the interviews with punk icons like Paul Simenon of the Clash and the Buzzcocks, let along Henry Rollins, start to go over the top, especially when they discuss their literary influences; despite the validity of influences like William Burroughs, Graham Greene, etc., you have to wonder how many of these "influences" were picked up by the speakers post hoc in their increased free time since their punk careers ended. The Notorious Bettie Page is not quite as intelligent but is very watchable, though hollow in an odd way, sort of in the same way Good Night and Good Luck is hollow; there's something more here, some sort of missing ghost in the shell. Perhaps that emptiness is that true import of these pieces in tandem.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Nichiren Revisited

Sorry for the long time since the last post. I've actually had a good month, which partly means that I haven't been motivated to write about anything. So be forewarned that I may find myself writing when I have nothing to say. That actually may be the case with this post, or worse, this one may be ammunition for those of you who think I'm getting soft because I haven't blasted anyone or anything lately. Don't worry, it'll happen. This post regrettably (for that portion of my readers) is more evidence of insidious growing tolerance in my positions. Oh my. I'll be discussing the end of the world soon, so keep coming back.

Anyway, if you've read my previous posts on my own personal history in Buddhism, you know about my experience with the Nichiren sect, or more precisely, with Nichiren Shoshu. More specifically, I was a member of Nichiren Shoshu of America, which was then the American arm of the Soka Gakkai, the international lay organization affiliated with Nichiren Shoshu. I practiced with them from February, 1986, til August, 1988, in Albuquerque. The practice was a very powerful one which led me to form convictions and perceptions which are also realized in my current practice of Zen. The organization was very screwed up, and ultimately demanded so much of its members, and made such absurd demands, that most of us quit; and soon after, the Nichiren Shoshu priests excommunicated the lay organization and its leader, Daisaku Ikeda. I understand that the Soka Gakkai is still stumbling around out there somewhere, and there are some priests in Japan who still are Nichiren Shoshu.

To pause here, please note that I'll be revising my links section in the next few days. If you really like any of my links, please save them to your favorites, because some of them are coming out, though hopefully I'm keeping the good ones. For example, Warp Spasm's blog seems to have been hijacked by an internet drug provider. Whatever it is, don't buy it. Anyway, I'll be adding in some more Buddhist links and blogs, including some links to the blog and website of Rev. Ryuei Michael McCormick. If you want the authentic skinny on anything about Nichiren, please look to him, not me. The instigant for the reflective chance noted in this article was a meeting with Michael at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center's October sesshin this last weekend. As one of the senior students (Marcus) pointed out, I thought I'd never hear anyone chanting "Nam myoho renge kyo" in a Zen Center, but here it was.

Because see, the Soka Gakkai thinks Zen is the devil. Of course, they also probably think Nichiren Shu is the devil, and that's what Michael McCormick is a priest of. Nichiren Shu is the more orthodox branch of the Nichiren school, which is quite popular in Japan, I understand. Their practice to be honest seems a lot like the Soka Gakkai's, but they seem to have a more sane attitute. They don't encourage new converts to chant for money and cars. They don't think Nichiren (who was, historically a thirteenth century Buddhist monk and a rough contemporary of Dogen, main patriarch of Japanese Soto Zen), was the Original Buddha. They seem to be clear of most of the magical thinking which I find to be the main fault of religion in general, and to which Buddhism and even some aspects of Zen are not immune. Then again, that's what Rev. McCormich says, and he may be taking the high road.

I'm in danger of a slippery slope here. A year ago, I might have said that all religion is bad and delusional, and that Zen is good and not a religion. The main thing that leads me to modify this is a new perception of what is known as skillful means. "Skillful means" is used in Buddhism to explain the fact that many of the alleged teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha seem to contradict each other. Some of that seem downright superstitious. Apologists use "skillful means" to indicate that the Buddha spoke according to the abilities of his listeners. So most people can't do zazen, or shikantaza, let's face it. I tried it when I was about 23, and I couldn't do it. But most people can chant "Nam myoho renge kyo," and maybe after they do that for a while, they can sit zazen. That's a rough paraphrase of how Michael McCormick explained his personal progression (he's now studying Zen with Dan Leighton, another product of the San Francisco Zen Center who's now starting his own temples).

This perception came about with my conversation in dokusan with Rev. McCormick as to my frustration with the modern Zen communities I've encountered. We seem to be made up of middle-aged, overeducated white people, for the most part. In fact, Zen is included in the classification of Elite Buddhism, as opposed to the traditional Buddhism of the Asian peoples. Families with kids don't sit zazen with their kids, for the most part. Our Nashville Zen Center is mostly made up of married people whose spouses we never see. One of the things I miss most about the Soka Gakkai was its sense of community; families with children, mechanics and lawyers and teachers and students all chanting together. It really did feel like a big family; I miss it. At the Nashville Zen Center, we sit together, then go away. In a residential community it might feel like a sangha. As it is, it often seems frustratingly empty.

There has been a proposal put to the Nashville Zen Center to participate in a new Buddhist center in Nashville, to be shared by all Buddhists. I pretty much opposed it originally. At some point it becomes the Unitarian church, a bunch of people sharing nothing but the common name of Buddhists. But maybe we need this. Maybe some people need to wave prayer flags and participate in arcane rituals. Maybe some need to chant. And maybe someday when those people grow up they can learn to sit zazen. Hey, even if they don't, it beats the promise of a fiery death in exchange for a heaven full of virgins.

I don't really have a conclusion here yet, just a position in a process. I think the first time I mentioned the Nichirens, I drew a rebuttal from a Nichiren Shu follower who quite correctly took me to task for lumping all Nichirens in with the nuttier elements I'd encountered previously. I still don't understand objectively how chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo is any different than chanting Namu Amida Butus, except for the intent behind it, and if there's one thing I've learned from Brad Warner's school of Hardcore Zen and from Gudo Nishijima, it's all about action, not intent. Nevertheless, one of the erudite (young) Buddhist scholars I've met had just convinced me that to some extent I should take Nichiren seriously. So there. So you with the little flags can come in too, I guess.

I haven't updated the links yet. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, keep coming back.