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

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm anything but a pacifist. Peaceful, smiling compassion is not in my genetic makeup. I do believe strongly in fighting for a cause that you know is right.

As I imagine is true with most people, the ancestors I know best were soldiers. On my mother's side, her bloodline came to America in the form of a Hessian mercenary in the Revolutionary War, who came to fight for the British, but stayed on. Her genetic father was mustard-gassed fighting for the U.S. in WWI. My father and his four brothers fought for this country in WWII; all but one fought overseas, and all came back alive. I shall forever remain proud of all of those men, and for the women who supported them. Although the cause and the justification varied greatly in kind and in value, all were brave men and did what they had to do.

So some of you haven't been happy with some of my posts on the warfare of modern times. And it's true that my politics, as it were, have changed a good bit since I began these Diaries, notably in the last year. I think that I've become more reconciled to the inevitability of war; it is, at the bottom, an inextricable part of man's history, and ironically perhaps, of his civilization. As long as there has been Man, there has been War, and I believe there always will be. It's in his nature.

Yesterday morning I finished reading the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, with text by Bruce Catton. (If you follow that link, I think it's a different edition; mine was a two-volume set published in the sixties). If, in this age of digital propaganda, you want to read some real history, I suggest you go find a book - preferably an old book. The version of the Civil War that I hear is being taught in the public schools, where it is taught at all, is scarcely recognizable. Your children's teachers will tell you that the war was fought to free the slaves, which is was not.
You'll hear some old Southerners still arguing about who was right in that war; it's a bit late for that, and most sides had their reasons, neither was ready for war, and soldiers were misled a bit on both sides back then, too. Soldiers probably always have been. At least, in the day of my tribal ancestors in Europe, the chief who "declared" the war usually led his soldiers into battle. It's been a long time since the men who made wars had to fight them, or even since their sons had to fight, and that's the biggest shame of modern war.

But regardless of what you think of the screaming Secessionists in South Carolina who really made the rift final that led to the Civil War, there's no doubt that as to what the soldiers in the South were fighting for. Union soldiers were called up as an invasion force; the Southern soldiers were fighting to defend their homes. Under equipped and greatly outnumbered, and for the most part badly led, the Confederates won almost every battle but still lost the War.

It's really not at all hard for me to say where my sympathies lie here. I have two direct ancestors on my father's side, at least, who fought in the War; the father was killed after his own discharge, taking supplies to his soldier son's embattled and under supplied company near Chattanooga - on horseback from Warren County through the mountains. As a legal matter, I think the Southern states' right to secede from the Union was clear. And while the soldiers on each side fought bravely, how could anyone forget how Sherman re-invented Total War for the modern age with this march to the sea? At least Goebbels was honest about his motives!

I graduated high school in 1975, when the disaster of Vietnam was still fresh in everyone's minds and the military was not popular. Joining up was just not something you considered unless you couldn't go to college or couldn't get a job; and there were plenty of jobs. I fell into a lucky window of just a few years, of males who never even had to register for Selective Service. Would I have felt differently in a different time? Perhaps. I do know that the spectre of Vietnam was a dreaded one for almost everyone I knew. I would in know way denigrate the honor, courage or nobility of anyone who fought in that war; it's the people who sent you there, with whom I have a problem.

After Vietnam, bypassing Carter's and Reagan's minor excursions, by the next time the U.S. went to War, it had all gone to bad. Both Gulf Wars have been fought for money -- foreign money at that, lining the pockets of the warmongers. And there may be worse, more sinister forces than simply greed in play, I haven't yet decided. But assuredly, the soldiers who have been sent there (and yes, even the contractors who've had quite a few pieces of silver lain in their silk purses) have been used. Regardless of who or what you believe is ultimately responsible for these crimes against all of humanity, you need go no deeper than Dick Cheney and Haliburton to see who pulls the strings a few levels up from the soldiers. And be ashamed.

So please, on this Memorial Day, do honor and respect those who fought and died in years past for your liberty. Memorial Day was begun as a tribute to Union soldiers who died in the Civil War, and expanded after WWII as an occasion to honor all of our veterans, which is appropriate, I think. But don't stop at those who fought for the American flag. Honor your Confederate ancestors if you have them (and remember Jefferson Davis' birthday is June 3!). The photo at the top of this entry is from Carnton Plantation near Franklin, TN, site of a really stupid battle where lot of men died for nothing; such is the nature of War. That would be a good place to go today.

But, please: If your home, your family, your tribe are attacked, defend them with all your might. Fight for what you know is right. And learn to tell right from wrong. Know when you're being used. And when that happens, fight not the targets that the evil men chose for you, but the evil men themselves.

And now my favorite song about war, courtesy of the Dropkick Murphys...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Gods and Myths of Northern Europe

I used to be a voracious reader of books; now, not so much.  After staring all day at a computer screen, most of my free time is now used otherwise, with the result that I usually wind up with a backlog of books.  And to tell the truth, most of what I've read lately has been disappointing.  So much to my amazement, I picked up Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H. R. Ellis Davidson where I'd left it months ago and discovered a nugget of scholarly and, may I say it, religious delight.

List most children growing up in America in the 60's and 70's, my access to the religious, mythological and folkloric history of the world came through (1) ridiculous Christian tales mixed with dogma, incoherently presented as "Truth"; and (2) tales of the Greek and Roman gods presented as silly stories, which were somehow supposed to enhance our understanding of culture and literature (which they may have, had we in fact been presented with any of that culture and literature).  I may have heard of the Norse gods as a child, but I think I really discovered them in Thor comic books.  And Thor was nowhere near my favorite; the rather pompous blond(!)  superhero was nowhere as enticing as The Avengers or the X-Men for me.

All of which was really sad, but it just got worse.  The next inkling I had that there were options to pursue,  with regard to the the origins of our culture and mindset, were little pieces of Hindu art and lyrics from George Harrison albums, which led to the silly but fervent religiosity of the Hare Krishna's, and ultimately to my investigation of other religions from the East, and probably ultimately to Buddhism and Zen.  So here I was, of German and English descent, being led in a big cultural circle which intentionally or not -- and more of that later, I promise! -- circumvented by true  heritage, as a product of Northern Europe.

If you're of Northern European descent, the religion of your ancestors was that of the Celts or of the Germanic tribes.  Although most of what we know of the "Norse" religions comes from the Eddas written at the end of the period of the northern gods' dominance -- when the stories had degenerated a bit -- they had their origins in the Europe of prehistory, in the same tribes which ultimately spread them to India where they (when integrated with the lost culture of the Dravidians) produced the Vedic period and all its children, including Hinduism and Buddhism.  Which means that most of the gods of the Norse pantheon (which is usually presented by educators as sort of an alternate version of the Greeks and Roman pantheons, as opposed to an aggregate of the cults of separate deities, which it was) originated as German deities -  Odin was prefigured by Wotan, a darker god.

If you are of Northern European descent, your lack of acquaintance with your true cultural heritage is a crime -- and I mean that literally.  And there's no better way to catch up quickly than to find, if you can, and read a copy of Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.  It looks like one of those little summaries of dry culture or myth that you read in high school or college because some instructor asks you to -- usually the quickest way to speed-ingest little summaries of some dry myth or the other.  But those myths are dry because they're not presented properly, and because you don't have the background to understand them.

Davidson's book could easily be mistaken for one of those at first glance -- and in fact that's initially what I did.  It starts out with a terse summary of the the Eddas, written by Snorri at the twilight of the myths themselves, and the little stories of the gods, without explanation or background are pretty much unintelligible and seem silly.  So beware! because at this point I put the book down and only came back to it after reading some modern books on Asatru and wanted to know the scholarly versions of the myths.  Whereupon this little book, after the first fifty pages blew me away!

Davidson not only presents the myths so that they make sense, she makes them relevant and real - and all this in a book published in 1965, before the rise of Asatru.  For me, it brings it all home.  Not only do I understand now more about the culture of my pre-Christian ancestors, but I see in them the roots of my own personality.  The Nordic peoples were distrustful of authority but fiercely loyal to their kin and their own.  I can relate not at all to the grovelling of the spawn of the desert religions, and can only respect and acknowledge the deep but foreign formalities of the Asian ones -- but the Nordic peoples, their stories and their yearnings, I feel in my heart.

My exploration of my true heritage has only just begun, but nothing in quite a while has so excited me.  For the clarity to see, understand and accept what I feel in these things, I thank my Zen practice.  And indeed, for these books - this little tome and the Icelandic sagas -- I thank one of my Zen friends, without whom I'd still be feeling that vague lack of cultural identity I've had til now.  And now that my eyes are open, I have to know why this obvious connection to my past has been hidden from me, even denigrated.  

Sometimes when one sees the truth, one doesn't like what is revealed.  I'm often amazed at how popular "mystic" religion promote some sort of insight to be gained by practice or experience -- yet on the other hand tell you that they already know what the insight will be! What part of "unknown" don't they understand?

If you're not of Northern European descent, and you want true insight into a culture which is not your own, I still heartily recommend this book.  Presented without paternalism, and indeed with a fascination which the excellent scholarship does little to conceal, this is the best introduction to the true cultural heritage of the civilization which has dominated the world stage for at least five hundred years, and is only now heading toward - obliteration? Hard to say.  But maybe at least you can see now what is worth preserving.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dharma for One

Actually, dharma for four, yesterday (not these four; this pic is from the retreat). It's rained here every day for forever here, now - a rare event in recent years -- and I think yesterday most of the little Zennies took it as a good day to sleep in, or whatever it is people do when they're lazy. Personally, that's one vice I don't' have much temptation toward, so it's hard to know. Maybe they lay in bed counting their toes, or other things.

Not that I minded. To be fair, several of our regular sitters were out of town in exotic locations, either because they don't have to work, or their work takes them to such places. Mine, unfortunately, keeps me tethered.

No, the dependable Dharma for One comes on Thursday mornings, at the "Multi-Sangha" sit which was begun for a member of another group who's quit coming, and a member or ours who's done the same. They both have good reasons not to come; I don't, so I do. I actually enjoy that one. And of course my own intentional sitting alone on the other days of the week, at home.

It only concerns me a bit because the reason I do these group (sangha) sittings is, first because I enjoy the company -- a rare thing for me, who would rather be alone most of the time -- and because I want to provide an opportunity for people to sit zazen, and to have enough support to be able to get their own practices going. Not that I would proselytize for zazen. I've realized that most of the people who come to us come already knowing it's what they need to do. The rare ones who come for some other reason usually drift off to an easier, softer practice. There are plenty of people out there who will spoon feed you "Buddhism" if that's what you want. And there are other groups who will make you work, too, don't get me wrong. But there's no reason or purpose trying to convert anyone. As I said, they come.

And to tell the truth, there is a bit of "steering" to be done, if people are to get it right. People come wanting to solve their problems, or to get enlightenment. Or because they want to calm their stresses, or find meaning. All those things can happen, but not if you try for them. And ultimately the only real reason to sit zazen -- well, the real Zen teachers would say, is to sit zazen. I'd say it's to experience what's there, whatever that is, and accept it as it is. To stare at its uninterpreted face, nod, and say, OK. Let's go.

I've been saying for a few years now is that the main reason I thing it's important that people who want this habit, this ability and this perception, to have it, as that there are hard times ahead. For most of us, the end of times. And I don't mean just in the sense that we're all gonna die, eventually. I mean that the survival of the world as it is now, is untenable . The only way that the human race can survive, is that people will die, en masse. The earth will cleanse itself of its excess; either that or the planet, the host itself will die, and we the virus will die with it. I hope the former happens, given the choice. But it won't be pleasant. Could be no one reading this, including me, will be around in ten years, or less. Could happen. I still think pandemic, natural or manufactured, is the mostly likely option. Pick your poison.

I think that zazen will enable you to stare into the face of the most horrible of times, which is not death but the other stuff that happens first, and accept it. Not that you'll like it. You may still scream, and depending, you may still fight. That's good. You'll do what you'll do. But you'll understand what that moment is. And live in it. This I believe. That hasn't changed.

But something else has changed for me, lately. I'm observing that humanity has a habit of surviving when it shouldn't, and that so do its individuals and its cultures. And so I'm thinking that some of us will probably be alive in a few years. Maybe not me, but still us. Under what circumstances, I can't say. I just watched this wonderful German TV mini-series called Dresden. And since I was a child I've had this version of walking through a city in ruins. That, I think, is inevitable for survivors.

Because what I'm pretty sure won't survive, is multiculturalism. I don't mean that only one culture will survive; I certainly hope not, and if I had to make odds on what that would be, I don't like what I see. The world has more than enough Muslims, and they're growing every day. More on that some other day. And maybe not in this blog. But if there's any religion crazier than Christianity, it's Islam. That's just the truth. Deal with it.

I' m not a big fan of multiculturalism, or what's usually referred to as diversity, anyway. I got attacked for this last year, but I still stand up for it. What's commonly seen as diversity, is cultural homogeneity. I love true cultural diversity. I love walking the streets of an alien culture, when it can be done reasonably safely. It's getting harder to do. They've all been blended together, by force of law, and by the machinations of the international consumer machine that reduces Chinese culture to restaurants. We pick and choose here and there. We do it in our religions, too.

And yes, I think that when times get hard, we will break up into groups, and we will fight each other. That's not optimal; it's just inevitable. When times get hard, you will look out for you and your own, whoever you perceive that to be. It's in your genes.

So there really is a point, or two, to all this. More on the other stuff later.

The first is, if one of the motivations I have in encouraging zazen is that it will help people enable hardship, it would first be necessary that the people coming to it, come not for entertainment or out of curiosity, or for that cushy warm glow better supplied by brandy. It would be necessary that they seek it, as the old proverb says, with their hair on fire. Nothing else will get you where you need to be, to get to the bottom. Otherwise I may be enjoying myself and telling myself I'm making a difference, when in fact, I'm just wasting my time. I have to sit with that a bit more and see where it goes.

There's another point, too. It has to do with what you see when you get down to the bottom that you can get to in zazen, where form is emptiness and emptiness is form and yada-yada, and in which you realize that although you don't exist, it's all up to you. And you can build up with there with the values you choose, or which are so ingrained in you that if they're not there, you're not you anyway. And that's where I find my values don't have much to do with the "philosophy" of Zen, which I'm finding is a beast quite different from the practice -- and which I'm finding, to be honest, is neither interesting nor helpful to be at this point. I'm finding those values in quite a different place. Values that can help to rebuild a new world, or to try to preserve what I see to be the best of the old one.

But more of that later. I've pissed off enough PC Buddhists and others already, and this one is getting long (as they do when I don't write for a few weeks). Save your steam, I guarantee I can raise your hackles another time. But maybe not here; I haven't decided. See the previous blog.

Oh, if the title seems familiar; it's not that other multicultural Buddhism I'm referencing; it's this stuff; old school great stuff (you can skip the first 1:28 if you're in a hurry).