Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Full Huang-Po

Here's a quote from Transmission of Mind by Huang-Po (who lived in China, they say, in the 9th century). Thanks to Daily Zen for posting this, and the NDHighlights Yahoo Group for pointing to it.

Yeah, yeah, when Huang-Po says things like "full understanding can come to you only through an inexpressible mystery," the words are a bit too beautiful and unnecessary. Truth has already appeared in this moment; why make anything? That being said, I've got a soft spot for this stuff, at least as poetry.
"Buddha" and "sentient beings" are both your own false conceptions. It is because you do not know real Mind that you delude yourselves with such objective concepts. If you will conceive of a Buddha, you will be obstructed by that Buddha! And when you conceive of sentient beings, you will be obstructed by those beings. All such dualistic concepts as "ignorant" and "Enlightened," "pure" and "impure," are obstructions.

Question: If our own Mind is the Buddha, how did Bodhidharma transmit his doctrine when he came from India?

Answer: When he came from India, he transmitted only Mind-Buddha. He just pointed to the truth that the minds of all of you have from the very first been identical with the Buddha, and in no way separate from each other. That is why we call him our Patriarch. Whoever has an instant of understanding of this truth suddenly transcends the whole hierarchy of saints and adepts belonging to any of the Three Vehicles. You have always been one with the Buddha, so do not pretend you can attain to this oneness by various practices.

Discuss it as you may, how can you even hope to approach the truth through words? Nor can it be perceived either subjectively or objectively. So full understanding can come to you only through an inexpressible mystery. The approach to it is called the Gateway of the Stillness Beyond All Activity. If you wish to understand, know that a sudden comprehension comes when the mind has been purged of all the clutter of conceptual and discriminatory thought-activity. Those who seek the truth by means of intellect and learning only get further and further away from it.

Were you now to practice keeping your minds motionless at all times, whether walking, sitting, standing, or lying; concentrating entirely upon the goal of no thought-creation, no duality, no reliance on others and no attachments; just allowing all things to take their course the whole day long, as though you were too ill to bother; unknown to the world; innocent of any urge to be known or unknown to others; with your minds like blocks of stone that mend no holes-then all the Dharmas would penetrate your understanding through and through. In a little while you would find yourselves firmly unattached.

Thus, for the first time in your lives, you would discover your reactions to phenomena decreasing and, ultimately, you would pass beyond the Triple World; and people would say that a Buddha had appeared in the world. Pure and passionless knowledge implies putting an end to the ceaseless flow of thoughts and images, for in that way you stop creating karma that leads to rebirth-whether as gods or men or as sufferers in hell.

The Void is fundamentally without spatial dimensions, passions, activities, delusions or right understanding. You must clearly understand that in it there are no things, no people and no Buddhas; for this Void contains not the smallest hairsbreadth of anything that can be viewed spatially; it depends on nothing and is attached to nothing. It is all-pervading, spotless beauty; it is the self-existent and uncreated Absolute. A perception, sudden as blinking, that subject and object are one, will lead to a deeply mysterious wordless understanding; and by this understanding will you awake to the truth of Zen.
Re-tweet from emptygatezen:
We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains. -Li Po and Tu Fu

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Letting Go of God

Letting Go of God is a monologue by comic, cancer survivor, and Saturday Night Live alum Julia Sweeney. (imdb.com calls it a "one-person-monologue." Heh.) I'm a fan of one-person shows, and Sweeney is great at combining comedy with philosophical depth.

I'm watching it on Showtime cable TV as we speak. Sweeney talked about being visited by some fresh-faced Mormon missionaries. She was stunned by how stupid their lead story was: a tale about Jesus visiting America on his way up to Heaven, about Joseph Smith learning of this visitation when he dug up golden tablets conveniently buried in his neighborhood, how Smith conveniently found a magic rock that allowed him alone to decode the writings on the tablets, which for some reason were in ancient Egyptian. Etc.

Like most things in life, the story of Mormonism is explained most incisively by South Park. The half-hour episode All About the Mormons is available in full on several sites, including MySpace. If you haven't seen it, do so immediately.

Yes, reasonable men cannot deny that the story is stupid. Sweeney feels like telling the Mormon kids, "Even Scientologists know they shouldn't start out with stories about Xenu the alien volcano master!" But later, she realizes that she can hardly feel superior, as her own Catholic faith, if viewed through fresh ears, would sound equally preposterous.

I'm less than 1/3 through the show, but based on the title, I assume she's on a path towards some sort of Atheism. I love Atheists, at least the ones who challenge the dominant mindset in a clever way, like Sweeney and Richard Dawkins.

It's not that simple a matter for me, though. For some odd reason, the question of God is strong in my mind at this time of year. I blogged two Decembers ago about being asked, at a Christmas party, if I believed in God. At that time, I wrote
I ended up saying something like this: There are times when I get this sense that all of existence is already in perfect balance, harmony, and resolution. These experiences come only now and then, but they're strong enough to color my life at other times. I sense that there's truth in the perspective of perfect balance, whether or not I'm seeing it at the moment.

That was as honestly as I could communicate it. Though I rarely talk about "God," I realized that someone who says, "God is all-powerful and perfect, and He's taking care of everything," is pointing to a perspective that's not so different from what I had expressed.
I'll add now: lots of the time in ordinary life, I most definitely don't see a universe of perfect harmony. My thoughts are on the frustrations and difficulties and suffering of life, at least as much as the average Joe. It's also true that during the rare times I do see that perfect balance, it's a wider perspective. That is, from that elevated(?) viewpoint, I can see how the ordinary perception of imbalance is itself part of the whole. The balanced viewpoint encompasses its opposite, in a way the imbalanced viewpoint doesn't.

It's like camping in the wilderness, and marvelling at the trees and such. I know that something made the sun, the moon, and the stars, and it sure doesn't seem like that something is understandable by my ordinary mind. Some people would say the Source is randomness. To my mind, calling something random means precisely, "I don't know anything about it." I heartily agree with that sentiment, but I submit that calling the origin of existence randomness fails to explain anything at all.

When I gaze at a clear night sky long enough, I start to feel like I'm in no position to quibble with whatever made all that, as if I could do a better job. (I think the Book of Job reaches a similar conclusion. The Lord, in so many words, tells our hero, "Can you make a universe, buddy? Come back when you can make a universe, and then maybe you can question My actions.")

Anyway... particularly after some discussion about belief and doubt in the comments section of a recent post... I'm at the moment again attracted by that question. When I recall a viewpoint of perfect, complete balance, even in the midst of life's sufferings... is my mindset all that different from someone who believes that God is all-powerful, and takes care of everything? I don't even know if it matters, but that's my question of the moment.

Follow up... the day after posting this, I found a video of Sweeny discussing LGoG, in an audience Q&A from the time of the filming:

Even better... is Sweeney's speech to the Freedom From Religion Foundation a couple years ago. An audio download and transcript is available on the Friendly Atheist blog. She talks about ten things she's learned since the monologue, living as an atheist.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No Thanks

It's the time of year that we're told to cultivate gratitude, to look at our life as a gift. What does that mean?

Growing up, if my mother gave me a shirt for my birthday, I'd of course thank her. It was never a big deal; it didn't seem to matter so much to her when I said "thank you." But if she later saw me wearing the shirt, that seemed to make her very happy.

So on Thanksgiving, I don't try to feel thankful, or look for ways to express appreciation to some higher power. Instead, I look at whatever it is I've got right now, and think about the best way to use it.

Every week I get a paycheck, the direct deposit into my checking account from the MS Excel design contracts I do. A certain amount goes for my rent, or to food and utilities and insurance, or into savings towards retirement or the next vacation or Vegas poker jag I want to take. Since the paycheck is regular and expected, it's practically automatic, how it gets directed into well-establish channels.

But what if I hit say a video poker jackpot? I didn't expect to get it, and have no assurance that it will happen regularly. That makes it different than a paycheck; it's more like a gift. With a gift, I've got no pre-determined plans or habits to guide what to do with it. I must take a moment to stop and ponder: how am I going to use this thing that unexpectedly dropped in my lap?

Life is a gift; we sure as hell never planned to get born in this world. I wouldn't know who or what to thank for this gift... and if I did, I'm not so sure that I'd want to thank them or curse them. But forget about that; the important thing about a gift isn't where it came from, and it isn't even whether I like it or not. The one vital point is: how am I going to use it?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

ZM Seung Sahn "Wake Up!" Video

An hour-long documentary of Zen Master Seung Sahn has made its way around the net. Released in 1992, the 54-minute video Wake Up! On the Road with a Zen Master follows ZMSS as he travels and teaches in Europe. It's on YouTube in 6 parts; here's Part 1:

(I've written of my personal experience with ZM Seung Sahn here.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

New Medical Marijuana Policy

One Giant Leap for Kind! AP reports: "The Obama administration will not seek to arrest medical marijuana users and suppliers as long as they conform to state laws, under new policy guidelines to be sent to federal prosecutors Monday."

If we formulate lofty goals and impose them on our neighbors with force (governmental or otherwise), we increase conflict in society. We reduce conflict by defining and increasing those situations in which we disapprove of what our neighbor is doing, and respond with persuasion at most, taking force off the table.

Part of the genius of the founders of America was the goal of limiting the extreme power of government from intruding on individual freedom. That's why it's argued that this is a country founded on a great idea.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in Notes on Virginia (1782): "... it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." The same spirit can be applied to any private or consensual behavior. Those who itch to forcefully impose their superior morality in such situations, ought not to be surprised when it ultimately results in coercion directed against themselves.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Are Near Death Experiences Real?

The lead story on CNN.com at the moment is titled Doctor says near-death experiences are in the mind. Yet within the story, the doctor calls NDEs "real":

Dr. Kevin Nelson, a neurologist in Louisville, Kentucky, studies near-death experiences and says they're not imagined. The explanation, he says, lies in the brain itself. "These are real experiences. And they're experiences that happen at a time of medical crisis and danger," Nelson said.

Huh? The doctor suggests that an experience explained by brain activity is real and not imagined. There must be other experiences that he'd call unreal and imagined. Where would these imagined experiences come from? Somewhere else, somewhere other than the brain?

We're always faced with big, imponderable questions. What caused the universe? In philosophical discussions, some may say the cause is God, others may say The Big Bang. Neither response resolves anything, as it just pushes the question a bit further down the road. What caused The Big Bang? Who made God?

In the early days of chess-playing computer programs, an interesting problem arose. Say the program could analyze a chess position six moves ahead (a very impressive accomplishment). If the computer was threatened with check-mate, but could make a move that pushed that disaster beyond six moves in the future, it would treat that variation as if the check-mate didn't exist.

Our brain-computers seem to operate the same way. We're faced with a great question of original cause. It can initially be disturbing to realize that we don't know where we came from (and indeed don't know who we are). If we throw in some ideas about Gods or Big Bangs, it pushes the questions a little further away, to a more abstracted level... so we can comfortably pretend that the mystery doesn't exist.

Likewise with claims that "everything is in the brain." If we assume that it all resides in the brain, what have we accomplished? We're left with the slightly more abstracted mystery: in what does the brain exist? Don't know...

We commonly posit two distinct types of phenomena: the unreal ones that exist in the mind, and the real ones that exist outside the mind. Is that true?

Our bodies have skins, so it's easy to distinguish what's inside them from what's outside. Kidneys are inside the body, trees are outside of it. But where is the mind's skin? If we can't locate the mind's skin, how can we say that one thing is inside the mind, while something else is outside it?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Decrepit Bowl of Dog Urine

Tamerlane Phillips is the son of John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, and half-brother of One Day At A Time's Mackenzie Phillips (who recently promoted her book High on Arrival on Oprah, complete with incest revelations). A few weeks ago, Tamerlane was quoted in the New York Post thusly:

Tamerlane, 38, told Page Six: "My family is and always will be a decrepit bowl of dog urine compared to Nityananda of Ganeshpuri. That is how great Nityananda is." The Indian yogi died in 1961. "Worship Nityananda, not the Phillips family. Nityananda can protect you," said Tamerlane.
Nityananda was the iconic yogi worshipped by Swami Muktananda, my own erstwhile guru. It's a mark of Nityananda's greatness that, nearly 50 years after his death in India, he's still inspiring an American quasi-celebrity to consider his family to be like dog urine.

Though this is an unusually big splash for Nityananda to make in the popular press, he's long had great influence in the Spiritual subculture. Among the successful gurus claiming Nityanada as a Master are the aforementioned Muktananda, his elusive successor Gurumayi, and graphomaniac Adi Da Samraj (aka Da Free John, Bubba Free John, etc). The lineage is well-detailed on the Nityananda Tradition site (created by my friend and former chess rival Swamiji Shankarananda of Australia).

Maybe we can't hold Nityananda responsible for his post-mortem devotees (and good luck trying to hold a dead man responsible for anything, anyway). Yet I do think there's some insight to be drawn from Tamerlane's eloquence.

If you teach that some things are hot, it by necessity implies that other things are cold. You can't have Good without Evil, or Spiritual without Mundane. To the extent that devotees shower Nityananda etc with extreme praise, it follows with mathematical precision that they'll balance the equation by cultivating derisive attitudes towards someone else. If we make one person out to be existentially holy, spiritual, perfected, and God-like... then we'll surely make someone else out to be dog urine.

Follow-up: Tamerlane made similar comments on YouTube, so I've added a brief clip here. On video and in context, he comes off more sympathetic than in the NY Post quote. His beliefs may have been useful in his situation. The benefits of holding his belief-system come wrapped in many other effects, and the helpfulness may have a limited shelf-life. Still, Tamerlane gets points in my book for having some awareness that he's flirting with fanaticism.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bill Maher Interviews "New Atheist" Sam Harris

I hadn't read/heard much of Sam Harris before watching this interview on Bill Maher's Real Time. Harris' book The End of Faith helped launch "New Atheism" movement... without even using the word "atheism." I enjoyed this Real Time segment and was impressed with Harris.

At the beginning of the interview, Harris says that atheism "has no content." I like how Harris is using the word to mean simply not embracing beliefs based on faith without evidence. He explains that we no more need to learn atheism than we need to learn how to be a non-astrologer.

I've watched a number of videos by fellow New Atheist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is more like a bomb-throwing evangelist for The Cause. This is less in tune with my own attitude. Theists make "God" and then believe in him, while Atheists (using the non-Harris definition) make God and then dis-believe in him. I'm more interested in the option of not making God.

That being said, Dawkins is insightful and entertaining. (A British accent adds fun to just about any lecture.) His site includes fine clips from his talk and Q&A at UC Berkeley. Here's a shorter clip of Dawkins from a Q&A at a college in Virginia:

(My two previous blog postings about Dawkins and Atheism, from last year, are here and here.)

Monday, September 07, 2009

Why live in this world?

A few years back I watched a typically brilliant HBO documentary about heroin users. One addict was interviewed who said that she intended to kick the habit someday, and really thought she was capable of doing so. She had one great worry and fear, though, and expressed it something like this: "If I didn't have to go out and find my fix... what would I do every day?"

Zen Master Seung Sahn would always ask, "Why do you eat every day?" The underlying meaning is, "Why do you live in this world?" Bringing up the question is a way to clarify life-direction. The Zen Master would say that a clear direction is one that's not just "for me."

Traditionally, Buddhism was practiced by monks. They separated themselves from society, and practiced non-attachment to I/my/me-thinking. When there isn't clinging to "I," then life is moment-to-moment; whatever you're doing, just do it.

For lay Buddhists in the modern age, the teaching adds more emphasis on compassion. We don't separate from society; we're constantly dealing with one relationship or another. A not-only-for-myself direction arises from wondering how to help others, whatever beings I'm connected to, whoever appears in front of me just now.

One virtue of the Buddhist goal of "saving all beings from suffering"... is that it takes infinite time to achieve. We thus won't have to deal with the horrifying possibility of actually getting what we want most. The following video clip brings up this issue in all its profundity:

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


Watch what moves (click on image to enlarge):

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dharma Videos

Resident monk Kwan Sahn Su Nim has been keeping the Empty Gate Zen Center YouTube Channel updated with short clips from our weekly public programs. Here's the latest:

Also from YouTube, video of our founder, Zen Master Seung Sahn (aka Dae Soen Sa Nim). It's a collection of clips from teaching talks, interviews, etc, put together for his 3-year memorial in 2007.

With all the stories and quotes I've included in this blog about ZM Seung Sahn, I don't know if I've ever posted any actual video of him before. Perhaps these clips are worthwhile in expressing the spirit behind the words of his teaching:

Finally, in today's web surfing I discovered a couple blogs maintained by Barry Briggs, a brother in both Dharma and Computer Geekdom. I've added them to my links list to the right of this page: Go Drink Tea (Koans for Everyday Use) and Ox Herding (Practice and Daily Life).

Traffic to my own blog (this one) mysteriously up-ticked, doubling the usual number of visitors for a couple days last week. It seems that more people are arriving through simply Googling "Random Thoughts," particularly in Canada. Go figure. I offer the above videos and links in the hope that these extra passers-by will find something useful herein.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Nature's Course

Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barbara Rhodes, head Zen Master of the Kwan Um School of Zen) just sent an email to the members of the School, quoting this poem from Ryokan (1758-1831):

The flower invites the butterfly with no-mind;
The butterfly visits the flower with no-mind.
The flower opens, the butterfly comes;
The butterfly comes, the flower opens.
I don't know others,
Others don't know me.
By not-knowing we follow nature's course.

ZM Soeng Hyang wrote, "What is 'nature's course'? Understanding can not help you."

My Buddhist name is Kwan Soeng, meaning Perceive Nature. A friend I've gone camping with gets upset whenever there are voices in the wilderness: "Screw those humanoids... I came here for nature!" But every wave in the ocean is water; isn't everything nature? What is there that's not nature?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Forbidden Lies, and Fart Apps

Two facinating, totally unrelated things I came across today.

On Showtime, watched the documentary "Forbidden Lies." This wonderful movie explores a literary hoax, and touches on big issues of truth and deception.

Also, caught this clever bit from The Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorSpinal Tap Performance

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Insight into my Blog Visitors

I happened upon a site today that allowed me to see the top 20 seach-engine phrases that had resulted in visits to my blog (this one) in the last year. Hey, maybe if I use all 20 of them in a single post, it'll boost readership. Ya gotta give the people what they want. Here goes, these are the top 20, for real:

adi da dies, adi da death, trippy+patterns, adi da dead, trippy+shrooms, death of adi da, baba muktananda, trippy+mushrooms, trippy+swirls, trippy+visuals, trippy+marijuana, trippy+animated+gif, trippy+mushroom, mushroom+trip, death of Adi Da, adi da is dead, adi da blog, mushroom trip video, Death of Adi Da, Adi Da death

Higher States

(Thanks to the Guruphiliac blog, where I initally found this video.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

For poker fans...

The 2009 World Series of Poker (WSOP) is complete... except for the final table of the main event, which is delayed till November to build suspense and marketing opportunities. It should be an exciting finish, with super-star Phil Ivey among the remaining nine contenders.

Recorded coverage of the action so far begins tonight on ESPN. The WSOP was over a month long, with different tournaments played every day, culminating with the "main event" (no-limit hold-em with a $10K entry fee). The winner of this final event is informally consider the world champion of poker for the year. Top prize is over $8 million. Ivey is rumored to have several side bets and promotional deals worth tens of millions more if he wins.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Media, Old Teachings

At Empty Gate Zen Center, new resident monk Kwan Sahn Su Nim is getting a few more videos onto our YouTube channel. Below is an excerpt from the weekly Q&A with Zen Master Bon Soeng (Jeff Kitzes):

KSSN is also maintaining our active presence on Facebook and Twitter. Here's a recent tweet, quoting from old Chinese Zen Master Nam Cheon:
Understanding is illusion, not understanding is blankness. If you understand the way of not thinking, it is like space, clear and void.
To get some context on this quote, here's a right-to-the-point Dharma Talk from Zen Master Dae Kwang (Abbott of the Kwan Um School of Zen, friend and frequent visitor to Empty Gate).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen is a moderately popular teacher/figure in the spiritual subculture. His rise to fame began with a visit to India in the mid-80s, where he met guru Hari Lal Poonja (aka Papaji). Andrew had some big special experience; Papaji looked in his eyes and declared the young man as his enlightened spiritual successor.

After a period of gloppy devotion to Papaji, Cohen rejected his former Master, and set out a-guruing on his own. He attracted his own mother as a disciple. Mom eventually concluded that sonny had gotten a bit full of himself; she left his group and denounced Andrew in her book Mother of God. (When your Jewish mother stops supporting you, you know there's some seriously bad weirdness going on.)

These days, Cohen has been partnering with author and self-aggrandizing philosopher Ken Wilber. Wilber has a history of glorifying authoritarian teachers, having gushed for years over bizarre guru Adi Da. Wilber refers to Cohen as a "Crazy Wisdom Teacher," which I believe is spiritual-speak for "He's an a**hole."

Cohen has been credibly accused of all sorts of deception and abuse of his followers (see the wonderful memoir Enlightenment Blues for details). Recently, the blog WHAT enlightenment??! has re-opened, for former students to reveal secrets and criticize Andrew and his org. Below are the comments I contributed yesterday to this blog's discussion. For context, see the original posting for these comments, The Truth Will Set You Free.

George said... the fact is just about everyone around him has those experiences.

It's not that Andrew demonstrates the power to reliably induce big special experiences. It's not that he could, for instance, take a randomly-selected group, move them into his community, and have them all report stunning experiences after a few days or weeks.

Rather: The people who encounter Andrew are a self-selected group who want special experiences. The price that Andrew demands (in money and subservience) insures those with the most desperate wants are the only ones that stick around.

Suppose that 1 in 20 people who come to Andrew indeed get a big experience. The other 95% soon wander off. The 5% from each new wave of arrivals accumulate around Andrew (the secret is volume). Eventually, there's the illusion that Andrew induces big experiences in most people who meet him. This is not the case… though it does require some careful critical thinking to see through the superficial appearance.

Carlos B said... Mata Amritanandamayi… It seems to me to be the perfect justification for Cohen's behaviour - particularly later in the article where she talks about the need to discipline her followers and the requirement of absolute obedience to the guru.

It’s not for nothing that Amritanandamayi has her followers call her “Amma” meaning “Mother.” All of us start out life as blind followers of our parents; otherwise, we’d have little chance of surviving childhood. As adults, we gradually learn to think independently. We do so to different degrees, and at different paces.

A percentage of the population look to rekindle the dependency, devotion, or absolute faith that we had for our parents as kids. They'll seek and find someone to play the role of a perfect parent. Either it’ll be an Andrew-like or Amma-like guru, or another person, or group, or belief-system, used with similar (if unconscious) intention.

Simon said... make no mistake, meeting a truly enlightened being is major catalyst for spiritual exploration.

We have no definition to use in determining who’s a “truly enlightened being,” so I don’t know how helpful this concept is.

True, many people have big special experiences when in the presence of an explicit guru (a person on a big chair, dressed in a fancy costume, speaking beautiful words, surrounded by like-thinking followers, accompanied by an attractive environment with tinkly music etc). Many many other people get big special experiences from a mind-stopping situation that doesn’t involve any enlightenment-claiming guru. In the US, most people who get transforming special experiences find them in charismatic churches, without any Indian-style guru involved.

Carlos B said... shouldn't love and compassion always be at the very center of a spiritual practise rather than speculative, self agrandising attempts to explain life, the universe and everything?

There’s no universal authority to tell us what the center of a practice (i.e., our life-direction, the thing we hold as most important) should be. So it’s our privilege/burden to decide for ourselves.

Should the most important thing be clarity and compassion towards each being we encounter? Or should it be a self-aggrandizing attempt to gain superior understanding or become more "evolved" than others? We can experiment with both paths, and see how it works out. We can be aware that it’s our own choice to make.

Anonymous said... What I would encourage you all to do is file a class action law suit against this creep and sue him for all the pain and suffering he's caused you… Just shut him down so he isn't continuing to do these things.

Or... we could focus on our own lives, our moment-to-moment thoughts and actions. If we don’t want to follow Andrew, no one is forcing us. If other people choose to follow Andrew in spite of readily-available warnings, we can leave them alone. People have their own ideas and situations; it’s not mandatory to force anything on others (by suing or shutting anyone down).

Maybe the most effective medicine is for each of us to think independently… rather than believing that the cause of suffering is rooted in some external evil.

philip said... [those who] doubt the intelligence and/or strength of character of those who [follow Cohen]: read those studies by Janis, Milgram, Asch and Zimbardo.

Many guru-types claim to have magical energy, or “shakti” that gives people special experiences. Superficially, followers can feel the energy flowing from the guru’s body, or photo, or from objects he's touched.

In controlled testing, there’s never any support for these magical claims. Desire, expectation, and belief (especially with group support) have been proven effective in inducing special experiences. But no guru's claim of magical energy has been supported by evidence.

There are people who are intelligent in some areas, but lack the skills to critically examine and test such claims. Critical thinking (a learned skill) does make a difference. You don’t have to be a Physics PhD; a basic understanding of scientific method is enough to detect the BS. People who lack this understanding/skill... can develop it with some effort and attention.

you must conclude you are probably more conformist than you like to think. The vital finding from those works is that the sense of independence westerners are so fond of entertaining is rarely put to the test, and largely illusory.

On the contrary… in Milgram’s experiment, most people sheepishly followed authority, but others refused to obey. There were those who were guided by their own independent thinking and ethics, and rejected the orders.

In the decades since Milgram’s experiment, society has moved further from blind conformity (pushed along by Vietnam, Watergate, counter-cultures, and free-flowing information). Were the experiment repeated today, maybe there'd be fewer blind followers.

Milgram proved that some people have a strong tendency to obey authority, while others do not. There are skills we can develop that affect which group we fall into. The lesson is not that we’re helpless against persuasion techniques. It’s that some people think and act less independently than others.

ordinary people who... assume immunity from manipulators like Cohen.

Metaphorically… beer companies put out highly attractive commercials, which induce some people to become drunks. But mostly we’re not helpless in the face of intense persuasion. We can learn to think independently in the face of authority, persuasion, and group-think. Rather than focus exclusively on “manipulation” by gurus or groups or beer commercials… it may be more efficient to examine our own minds, to see what’s at the root of our desire to believe and obey and follow. We can perceive the roots of gullibility in our own thought-process. Then we begin to have more choice as to whether we ultimately believe in authorities and groups and belief-systems… or in ourselves.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Pulling a Geographic (Part 2)

Finishing up my thoughts on traveling and nomadic life (which I began in June's Part 1 post)...

I first heard the phrase after I'd returned from my time in India and was settling into the Bay Area. The local paper used the AA term "pulling a geographic" to describe people who wanted to relocate in an effort to fix/reboot their lives. For decades, the prime destination for Americans pulling a geographic was the San Francisco region. Since globe-trotting often fails to alter deep life issues, this resulted in the abundance of therapists, spiritual groups, etc, hereabouts.

At the time, there was speculation that Seattle was taking over as the place to P a G. Who knows. I do seem to encounter an unusual number of nomadic people where I live. Maybe it's that California has so many folks who grew up in the East, and traveled in an effort to get as far away from their home towns as possible (without having to swim or get a passport).

Maybe I just get attracted to such people because I find the adventurous spirit interesting. Maybe it's that people attracted to new places and experiences are more likely to show up at the Zen Center I frequent.

In Korea, some Zen monks are called "floating clouds," since they're always wandering. Others are called "blue mountains," since they stay in one place. Maybe some of us get attached to familiar surroundings, and can work on this by travelling. Others may be attached to avoiding the challenges and commitments of long-term connections, and face that by being stationary. The outside situation is a tool to work with, but the bottom line isn't coming or going. It's how I keep my mind this moment.

Years ago, a friend told me that his "ace in the hole" for dealing with difficult relationships was to move to a new town. He's not around here any more... but he did end up getting married and having kids. The "floating cloud" mind does seem to be more prevalent in youth. Maybe there's something genetic about our urge to spread ourselves around the planet when we're young, and that tendency wanes as we pass prime procreation age.

Me, I'm approaching two decades living in the same apartment, and it's not just because of biology or rent control. Lots of my youthful travels -- certainly to India -- were driven by the sense that there might be some special Experience, some higher Truth, to be found out there. The more I appreciate the Truth that's always right in front of me, the more I honor the job of relating to whatever being/situation has appeared just now... the less I feel a desire to be elsewhere.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Zen Master Bon Soeng on "Roadtrip Nation"

Back in January, I posted about Zen Master Bon Soeng (Jeff Kitzes) appearing on the PBS show Roadtrip Nation. Here's a 6-minute clip:

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Pulling a Geographic (Part 1)

Last week, the local paper ran a story under the headline The latest travel trend? Becoming a nomad. The article references the book American Nomads, as well as numerous blogs maintained by people who've chosen a life of continuous travel.

The idea of long-term wandering has always fascinated me. I had a perfectly nice childhood in a suburb of Philadelphia, but still I'd dream about the day I'd be old enough to set out and have adventures around the country or the world.

As a teenager, this desire manifested as an interest in books like Kerouac's On The Road. Kerouac himself was only on the road for a short time, but the grand and romantic way he fictionalized the experience made it feel like more. I recall looking at the cover of my paperback copy, which showed a drawing of a long, deserted stretch of highway leading towards distant mountains, and feeling an ache in my heart about what it would be like to be there.

Then there were 60s and 70s TV shows like Route 66 (two guys in a convertible, finding new adventures each week as they rode down the highway) and Then Came Bronson (exact same plot, but with one guy on a motorcycle). I ate up all those nomadic stories.

I even watched The Littlest Hobo. This time, the on-the-road hero was a dog. I felt that same ache when the theme song came on:
Traveling around from town to town.
Sometimes I think I'll settle down.
But I know I'd hunger to be free.
Rovin' is the only life for me.

Wanderlust played out in my own life between the ages of 18 (when I first left home for a brief stint at college) through my mid- to late-20s. I was part of Swami Muktananda's "3rd World Tour," a travelling meditation show in New York, Florida, and California. It was much like joining the circus. Then my most extreme travel experience, a couple years in India. Later, I tripped across the US, hitting spiritual hot spots. I've spent months in Arcata (Humboldt County, CA), and a year dealing blackjack and roulette in Vegas.

I don't know what to make of the travel/wander bug. It seems to cut both ways. In Buddhism and other Indian traditions, monks may frequently travel from place to place. The idea, I'd guess, is that this type of homeless, "floating cloud" life teaches non-attachment to the constantly changing names and forms of this world.

On the other hand, constant travel can be an escape mechanism. Alcoholics Anonymous speaks of "Pulling a Geographic"... the deluded belief that you can solve entrenched life problems by simply moving to a different location. A review of American Nomads (the book referenced above) calls it "a meditation on the urge to be elsewhere." This makes the nomadic life sound like the antithesis of Buddhism, which would teach us to attend to the Truth right in front of us, rather than cultivate fantasies of greener grass.

In my next post, I'll think some more about why I had this nomad urge when I was younger, and why it seems to have evaporated over the last couple decades, as I've stayed put in Berkeley.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


Empty Gate Zen Center has taken some further baby steps into the new millennium, with both a Facebook page and a Twitter thingie. Along with the Yahoo Group, we'll use Twitter to send out Center news and (daily?) Zen aphorisms.

Which reminds me of visits to my father's father (we called him Zeyda, which is Yiddish for grandfather). This was 40-some years ago, and I was too young to be curious about the facinating life Zeyda had lived. Let alone to be grateful for his courage in crossing continents and oceans from Ukraine so that his lucky descendants could be born in America. I did notice how out of touch he seemed to be about the modern world, calling a refrigerator "the icebox" or a car "the machine."

My sage brother would explain that just about everything in the world had changed since Zeyda's childhood. And (my brother would whisper to me) the world changes faster and faster, so the day would eventually arrive when I'd find myself even more clueless than Zeyda was then.

Twitter reminds me of that long-ago prediction. Not only do I fail to figure out Twitter technically... I can't even grasp the concept of wanting the world to know what I'm doing minute to minute. But I got my own Twitter account anyway. I don't expect to send out much; I still haven't worked out how to connect it to my BlackBerry.

Why did I bother to join Twitter? Because it's what all the kids are into; it appears to be the Biggest New Thing since levitating ping-pong balls. So maybe my membership at Twitter will magically and mystically forestall that fateful day my brother whispered about. Besides, I do enjoy following some of the "Tweets" that others send out, like: 2012 is for people who were disappointed with Y2K (from Guruphiliac) and Looking for the meaning of life is like looking for the square root of purple (from Duhism).

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mind Over Matter (coming this Christmas!)

A great article at WashingtonPost.com heralds the release of new toys that run on "mind control over matter." Here's the link: Brain Wave of the Future.

Surely this is The Next Big Thing. It addresses the age-old conundrum of mental/physical duality, and by Xmas it'll be on the shelves of Toys 'R' Us (for ages 8 and up). Here's the gist: you attach an electrode to your forehead, it reads your level of concentration, and translates it to levitation of a ping-pong ball.

Think of the possibilities. The new technology is a likely cure for ADHD and senility, and will allow paralyzed people to control appliances with their minds. But why stop there?

Consider all the spiritual/religious groups that hold up super-concentrated states (meditation, contemplation, prayer, etc) as The Goal. Their Spiritual Leaders make unsubstantiated claims about achieving one-pointedness, and demand blind faith in their abilities. Now we have a technological solution, a way to actually quantify who's got the best concentration.

Think of Yoga cults, where Swamis claim superior God-realization. Why not subject them to the test, and make them surrender their seats to anyone who can levitate ping-pong balls higher? Or when a Dalai Lama dies... why make the Lamas go through that tiresome process of seeking his reincarnation? They can just hold a contest to measure mind-over-matter skills, and declare the winner as Supreme Meditator.

When Benedict XVI dies, I'd like to see the College of Cardinals all hooked up to electrodes, and the ping-pong balls will reveal how intense their prayers really are. Wouldn't that be a more efficient way to select the next Pope? Put it on pay-per-view, and maybe the Vatican can pay off some legal bills.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Yesterday I attended the Happening at People's Park. (What to call it... a concert? a festival? It was officially billed as An Afternoon of Music, Memories, and Magic.) It marked the 40th anniversary of the riots that gave birth to the Park, attracted the attention of the nation, and made my little town of Berkeley the center of the exploding 60s counter-culture/protest movement.

What can I tell you. It was a beautiful day in Berkeley, and it was just a short walk from my house. Besides, People's Park has a special place in my heart, as the first place I bought LSD in the mid-80s. The music was free, as was the food provided by Food Not Bombs. My buddy and I wished we'd set up a competing booth and called it Bombs Not Food. Or at least Drugs Not Hugs.

It's incredible to people-watch the crowd that appears under such conditions. Where do all these middle-aged hippies come from? Where do they hide themselves between jam fests? How do they make a living... it's impossible to imagine some of those folks in any conventional job.

The scene can't be described in words, so I've devised a little game. Below are a few photos and videos. Each was either taken by me yesterday with my trusty BlackBerry... or is entirely fictional. Can you tell the real from the imaginary? Life is strange, particularly in Berkeley; distinguishing fact from fiction isn't as easy as you may think!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sniff Swig Puff

From the 70s: Rock Hudson and Bea Arthur sing an ode to recreational drug use.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Am I doing it right?

I lead the Tuesday and Thursday evening practices at Empty Gate Zen Center. Zen isn't terribly popular, particularly since the 70s. Nonetheless, an attendee or two generally shows up at these sittings. One such young woman, a university student who's a Thursday night regular, even started a group that sits on a different night, in the International House dorm where she lives.

Last week, someone in the I-house group asked her, "How do I know if I'm doing it right?" (I assume the reference is to sitting Zen.) She wasn't sure how to answer, so she asked me. I first gave her my gut response: "You don't know. You just try."

Zen tradition isn't so big on explanations. But my American society... particularly the sub-culture I swim among in Berkeley, one heavily influenced by psychoanalytic theory and such... is awfully big on explanation. I'm sometimes torn when it comes to gut reactions vs thought-out ones.

Whatever. After I'd considered it for a few minutes, I said to her, "If someone's wondering if they're doing it right, it means that they're holding some idea about 'right' vs 'wrong.' It means that they want something, so they're concerned about whether or not they're gonna get it. When thoughts like that appear, it's a really great opportunity to examine them closely, question them, see them for what they are."

I don't want to have canned answers to the Big Questions. I want to -- to some extent anyway -- respond freshly and flexibly, according the particulars of the situation. This question (Am I doing it right?) comes up constantly with beginning Zen students. How could it not? A couple decades ago, a new student had asked me, and I told her, "It's called sitting. If you're sitting on the cushion and haven't fallen off, then you're doing it right. And if you have fallen off, that's OK too."

I dunno. That answer may have been good or bad, or both, or neither. In any case, I enjoy the irony of the question. We've all been sitting, no problem, practically since we were born. Then we visit a Zen center and formally learn to "sit," and all of a sudden, we're not so sure any more that we know how to do it right!

If any reader has any thoughts about how I should answer this type of question, please speak up.

Monday, March 09, 2009

After Death, Before Birth

Riffing off of Seeking Lemonade, who was kind enough to contribute to the comment section of my March 5 post:

Seeking Lemonade said...
So, Stuart, a question. When I am dead, will I know what being dead is (or will I, since I will be in a state of deadness, not know)?

Whatever happens after death, how could we be any less existent than before we were born? And look what happened that time! There we were, minding our own business, not bothering anyone, not even existing fergawdsake... and through no fault of our own, boom, we appeared in this world.

If it happened once it can happen again. It makes more sense to me, anyway, that if we got born out of nothingness one time, it won't be the only time. I mean, it's not like there's any rush. We've got infinite time and infinite space to play with here.

There's nothing to stop us from appearing and disappearing, over and over. Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, "First you were zero. Then you got born, so now you're one. Soon you'll die, and you'll be zero again." In the end, we're back at the beginning.

Peaking on Salvia Divinorum, I once had flash before me all the various ways that existence could be divided: Good/Bad, Light/Dark, Masculine/Feminine, Happiness/Suffering, etc. Like a Yin/Yang. It culminated with a vision in which the entire universe (multiverse?) of name and form was on one side, with total complete vast emptiness on the other.

For a second, it was like sitting on the fence, ready to fall into either side, existence or non-existence. And I felt profound indifference. If I added up everything on the Existence side, the sum was Zero anyway. Perfect balance.

But then it seemed like the Emptiness choice was kinda deceiving. Even if non-existence lasted for eons before I popped back out, it'd be like going into deep sleep. From "my" perspective, it would pass in an instant.

Besides which, I had a tickle in the back of my mind, vaguely remembering that a couple of friends were "baby-sitting" my body while my mind tripped. I wouldn't want to disappear and leave them worried or bored. So here I am.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Good Thinking, Bad Thinking, No Thinking

I continue to be stretched thin, juggling two contracts to write computer code for MS Excel-based business tools. I do this mostly from home; no time commuting, so more time to squeeze the work into the day. When pressed, I can save additional time by skipping niceties like getting dressed. Programming in my underwear wasn't possible when I was a cubicle worker, not even on Casual Fridays.

In the midst of this comes the annual week-long sitting retreat at Empty Gate Zen Center. How much of the retreat do I have time for? Given the world situation, it seems like a good idea to over-perform in my work life, and maximize my chances for professional survival in hard times. Yet I can't forget the importance of sitting quietly, doing nothing, taking up the Big Questions of life.

It's challenging to find the balance. I'd write more about it, if I had the time. I ended up doing retreat over the weekend (6am Sat - 9:30pm Sun), and now during the week I'm working most of the time, and going back to the Zen center evenings and/or mornings.

Last night, the retreat paused for our weekly public program. Our Dharma friend Scott spoke, and related a nice quote about Good and Bad. As in life, Good and Bad play a core role in Zen teaching. Spiritual traditions always have an element of self-improvement, of trying to be a Good Person. Ain't nothing wrong with that; an eminent teacher said, "Good is better than Evil, because it's nicer."

But ultimately, Zen teaching points at something that doesn't depend on Good and Bad, something that's already appeared before our thinking creates dualities and distinctions. An ancient Zen master said, "Even a good thing isn't as good as nothing." My own original teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, first "hit my mind" with a poem that begins, "Good and Evil have no self-nature. Holy and Unholy are empty names."

In that context, I'll leave y'all with the aphorism that Scott shared last night, which he'd heard ZM Seung Sahn use in the old days:

Good thinking, good thinking, good thinking... go to Heaven.

Bad thinking, bad thinking, bad thinking... go to Hell.

No thinking, no thinking, no thinking... then what?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Yoga Piracy and The Bolinas Effect

Earlier this week, the Guruphiliac blog pointed to an article in the Times of India, decrying Yoga Piracy. Said article begins:

India is going all out to save yoga — a 2,000-year-old art of righteous living, from western pirates. Instances of self-styled yoga gurus claiming copyrights to ancient ‘asanas', especially from the West, is now becoming rampant.
You hear stuff like this frequently from Yoga enthusiasts. The teaching of Yoga is being tragically over-run by teachers with the minds of Western businessmen, turning it from the most Sacred Tradition into something akin to a McDonalds franchise.

These sentiments might sometimes be influenced by something I call The Bolinas Effect. Bolinas is a little coastal town in the San Francisco Bay Area. The wonderful natural beauty of the place was discovered by a number of people who ended up moving there about 40 years ago, establishing it as a sort of hippie haven.

Then, as the population increased, some residents began to famously steal the road signs that directed people to the town. Their idea was to save the town by preventing it from being over-run by too many of the common folk. When anonymously quoted in news articles, these vandals spoke in sanctimonious terms, that they were protecting the purity of this heavenly place, from the onslaught of the masses.

OK, OK, there is some point to the vandals' viewpoint. Crowds can ruin a place, and popularization of anything, including meditation teachings and practices, may lead to its degradation in the process of making it more accessible.

That being said, there may also be hints of a darker force behind such sentiments. Isn't it possible that some of these Yogis and Bolinasites have an attitude something like this: "I've found something I feel is really wonderful and special, and part of this feeling is dependent on the fact that so few other people have found it. As more and more people find what I've found, it'll decrease this feeling of specialness."

In case it's not obvious... I recognize this type of mind because there have been times over the course of my 30+ years of meditation practice in which it's been very tempting to think of it as having given me something special. Over time, I've come to question the utility of such thinking.

OK, OK, these ideas of specialness are sometimes useful, especially at the beginning of a meditation practice, since they inspire effort and attention. But great care must be taken from the get-go. If a meditation practice helps one discard 10,000 delusions, and in their place a single delusion grows, the belief that "I've got something special"... I'm not so sure that it's such a wonderful thing.

So here's what I wrote in the comments section of that Guruphiliac posting:

Anony wrote...
> Sure, Indian heritage needs protection.

Can anyone explain exactly what the problem is with the current situation, what it is that needs to be changed or protected?

Here's what I mean. Say I become interested in Indian heritage of philosophy and meditation and such. I read the Yoga Sutras and collected talks of Ramana Maharashi, stuff like that, and find it wonderful.

So I join together with some friends and neighbors, and we gather to support each other in stilling our minds, inquiring into the true self, doing so using teachings and techniques from the Indian heritage.

Is there any concern whatsoever that as my friends and I sit together quietly chanting OM or what have you... that lawyers will burst through the door and slap a cease and desist order on us, telling us that this mantra is owned by a corporation, or that we'll get sued if we continue to ponder "What am I"?

No, there's no chance that such a thing would happen. Whatever's going on in the realm of intellectual property, it's of absolutely no hindrance to any people or groups who choose to pursue interest in the heritage of India.

Now, it's true that if my little group decides to package these ancient practices we're doing and offer seminars and try to make big bucks from it all, then I can imagine some legal problems. But is that (making a profit from the teachings) really the core of their importance? For people who just want to explore the Heritage for the sake of understanding our true nature and helping each other, we're all absolutely free to do so.

So, honestly, where's the problem? Maharishi Mahesh Yoga (founder of the Transcendental Mediation/TM movement) packaged some Indian tradition into a big business. If lots of people chose to go that route, OK, why should it bother me? Let people do what they like. Anyone who wants to simply explore the tradition, the Indian heritage which is now more freely and widely available than ever... can do so, and doesn't need to get a license or ask anyone's permission.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

I'm a Published Photographer

In Aug '08, I posted about a Reno trip that was saved by a $2026.25 jackpot. (For my fellow Video Poker travellers... it was quad deuces on a quarter Deuces Wild 5-play Multi-Strike machine, on the top row, where payouts are x8.)

There's a photo in that blog, taken of the winning hand with my BlackBerry. It now appears in the newly-released sixth edition of the online Schmap Reno Guide. Go to


and click on Atlantis Casino at top of center col. The top of the right col cycles through some photos of Atlantis, one of which is my jackpot. (You may need to keep your cursor hovering over the Atlantis box in the center col.)

Yes, I know this is silly. But as the world spirals towards chaos, it's nice to remember that moment of glory.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Google and Names

I saw the game described this morning by my facebook friend Cory. Take your first name, and put it into a number of common phrases, like:

"Stuart needs"
"Stuart looks like"
"Stuart likes"
"Stuart wants"
"Stuart does"
"Stuart hates"
"Stuart can't"
"Stuart is"

Then Google the phrase, in quotes, to find the #1 context in which it appears on the net.

For example, right now if I Google "Stuart needs", the top site is by prisoner Stuart Pomeranz, which uses the phrase thusly: "...he knows people who know people who know Stuart and they all think Stuart needs his ass kicked a few more times."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Zen Video etc

The TV show Roadtrip Nation visited the San Francisco Bay Area last year. They interviewed some local luminaries, including Political Analyst Michael Parenti, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings... and Zen Master Bon Soeng of Empty Gate Zen Center (where I've practiced for decades). ZMBS' clip is below.

In this new year, Empty Gate just might follow through on our resolution to get more Zen on video. Bill filmed last Wednesday's evening program. Before ZMBS' talk and Q&A, I gave an intro talk, rhapsodizing about the 2004 indie film Zen Noir. (In most meditation schools, such talks start off with stories from sacred scriptures. We haven't got any of those in Zen... but Netflix provides plenty of alternatives.) The talks are on YouTube in 4 parts, the first of which is embedded below.

It's been a month since I last posted. First, I was on pre-holiday vacation with my mother and some friends. It was good to hang out with them, there were some cool sites and a fun morning snorkling, and it was kinda good to be away from the Christmas hoo-hah. Since then I've been busy with my new contract with Gap. It's going real well, but considering these uncertain times, I'm making extra efforts to be especially productive... and less snarky in my attitude. I'll be happy when the economic crisis is over, and I can return to normal.

Thanks to those who posted comments during this time. In the Abortion Politics comments, Doug offers some sane thoughts, and a link to an audio of a Zen talk discussing politics and abortion. In the comments to Adi Da Dies, Morgan writes of his positive view of time spent with Da. It's great that Morgan, who spent years close to Da, has offered a different perspective here in such a thoughtful way.