swan song

a rock
sitting
sun warmed flesh

And with that I put this blog on indefinite hiatus. It seems I have said all that I have to say on this particular topic. I still have a monkey mind. I still make sourdough bread that is too wet, but my partner likes it for sandwiches. And so it all goes on.
arnie

the picture above can be found on my web page at ajbell.ca

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The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs

You’ve probably heard the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs. The version I first heard had it that: There was a serf who had a remarkable goose that started laying eggs of solid gold. The serf in question, having no right to anything at all except the right to do what he was told, inevitably had to give the goose to the Lord. It was either give the goose or have the Lord’s thugs take it from him and give him a beating in the process. So now the Lord has the goose, and it lays a gold egg nearly every day. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the goose lay two eggs a day? The lord starts force-feeding the goose, and indeed, for a little while, the goose lays two gold eggs a day. The lord decides that three eggs a day would be far better, so he ups the feeding. The goose dies of heart failure because it got too fat.

Another ending: The lord decided that if he could figure out why the goose was laying gold eggs he could make all the geese lay golden eggs. Bright idea. He dissects the goose and learns nothing. Dead goose = no gold eggs.

This type of outcome is suggestive of what is happening due to America Capitalism today. In chasing money through the manipulation of money (rather than through making, maintaining or developing things), the country’s infrastructure (the gold laying goose) has been dismantled and the American system is generating less and less wealth. The poorer people of American are having to tighten their belts as they become poorer while the richest plot to corner the biggest share of a shrinking pot. The American nightmare.

Why did all this start running through my head last night at 2:30 a.m.? It was due to the news I had heard earlier, that the information highway was in danger of being sold off to big corporations who want to control your and my access to websites. Internet access providers will increase our upload and download speeds but only if we go to the big corporation sites who pay for faster speeds. Conversely, internet providers will slow down our upload and download speeds if we try to go to small, less wealthy sites that cannot pay the big bucks. Desire for incredible wealth is turning the internet into TV. Soon we will be able to turn the internet on and watch, but we will not be able to get to anything we really need. In China the government wants to control what you think by stopping you from seeing other ideas. In America the corporations want to control what you think you need to buy by controlling the ads you see. It is totally possible that in this new wwworld order, zen blogs will load slower and slower.

Why am I thinking about this in the middle of the night? Isn’t this kind of stuff (people trying to control other people) always the way of humanity? When was it any different?

It’s all about desire. The desire to get the universe to do what we want it to do so that we can have a perfectly pleasant and worry free life. Big corporations are no different in this than individuals because corporations are made up of individuals. Individuals desire impossible things, and so do corporations.

I stare into the darkness and watch my mind trying to plot the perfect blog that will make everyone sit up and become enlightened. But I don’t take any of my metal monkey business seriously. I just watch it flow on by. I know whence comes my desire to make perfect everything in the world, but to analyze it fully here would take pages, novels. At the most superficial level, I can say that my training by the Catholic church included the idea that because Christ, by the age of 32, had saved all the souls of the world, I should have done the same. Doesn’t help that the Bodhisattva vows include the idea that we should save all entities. I tell myself that attachment to Buddhism, or to its rites, injunctions, vows, precepts, and advice, can cause problems with self-worth every bit as deep as the problem caused by that pesky idea from Catholicism. Whenever my early desire-program, to save all entities, pops up in the dead of the night, I try to let it run its course without getting involved, obsessed, attached. Or I get out of bed, which is always tiresome at such a late(early?) hour, and go read a book. Then I can get back to sleep.

But the need, the desire, to save all beings can be traced back to the desire to control the universe and make it treat you (me) in such a way that you(I) will no longer suffer. If everyone was enlightened (saved) then the world would be sweet for me! But we can’t make people enlightened. All we can do is act in such a way as not to cause more suffering. That is the only saving we can do. Be an example of non-desire, of non-suffering, of non-attachment. Ho!Ho! Ho! Another aspiration to get attached to.

Why can’t we see that desire is useless? We can never get what we desire. No body can. The mind is not capable of parsing the infinite variables affecting reality sufficiently enough to allow a plot or a plan to bring about any specific and finely detailed outcome. In other words, any time we try to make something happen, we fail to the exact degree that we try to make the event happen in an exact manner. Yes, we can decide to go on a picnic, but we can’t make the ants stay away, nor can we make our picnic partner fall in love with us over the egg salad sandwiches, nor can we control the weather.

“The best laid plans of mice and men/ Gang aft agley.” Sometimes our plots seem to succeed; but at second thought, the desired outcome never meets up with our expectations. When we finally win that long desired golden fleece, all sorts of worries creep in: will someone try to steal it, how much can I get for it, and is the buyer trying to fleece me? How may people can I beat up to get them to work for me for free before they start a revolution? And why doesn’t he/she love me like I want? If only….

Attachment to any desire is a mug’s game. We can’t think up a sure-fired path to any outcome, and outcomes keep changing long after the attainment. In desiring something we are exercising our imaginations. But our imaginations are not powerful enough to encompass the infinite number of smaller details, small events, that go into making any one thing happen. How then can we work up foolproof plans to save all sentient beings? The only tools we have is to make sure we are not attached to any specific outcome, and to work hard at finding out how not to engage in our own suffering.

And now, surfing backwards through time about 2500 years: Buddha was doing his thing, and the Ancient Greeks, approximate contemporaries, were doing theirs. Socrates was being interpreted by Plato in this book The Republic. Near the beginning of Plato’s long dialogue, Thrasymachus argues with Socrates. Thrasymachus claims that the ‘good’ is what is good for one self and never mind anyone else. Plato tries to argue that Thrasymachus is wrong, that the good is what is good for everyone. As far as I can see, the rest of the Republic is Plato’s attempt to prove Thrasymachus wrong. He never does.

Plato is often cited as the node through which all western philosophy passes. All the philosophical questions that concern us today were anticipated by Plato/Socrates. In terms of how to do the good, no one in the last 2500 years has been able to prove Thrasymachus wrong. And in not being able to be proved wrong, a lot of people act on Thrasymachus’s advice. One possible way Thrasymachus could be proved wrong, and the argument Plato ends up with in the Republic, is to invent a metaphysics. There are only two possibilities of defeating the idea that the good is nothing but self-advancement and self-interest. Either we invent a religion (and you know of the kind of damage people are capable of doing in the name of religions), or we rely on a person’s inherent need for goodness for all. And this completes a circle back to the story about the goose that lays the golden egg. The good never came into it.

In the armed forces there is a principle known as the facts on the ground; only the officer on the ground in the event can interpret the orders as they apply to that event. If necessary, the ranking person can change the orders because orders given at a remove cannot anticipate changing circumstances. Even if philosophy cannot prove that the good is what is good for all, the facts on the ground give us a good idea of what is real.

Capitalism as it is practiced in America funnels wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer people. This means that more and more people become poorer. But instead of talking about the good (it spanks of dichotomy and dualism), let’s change the concept into Buddhistic principles and talk about suffering. The state on the ground in America tells us that large and increasing accumulations of wealth increase the amount of suffering for increasing numbers of people. One would think that the opposite would also be true, that the wide distribution of wealth would help alleviate suffering. In Plato’s terms, to alleviate suffering would be the good.

Another leap of topic, but germane perchance.

Check out The Price of Sugar for an extreme example of accumulation of wealth and what it leads to in terms of suffering.

And now, to get to the point of all the previous: Awareness. How can we really know what the facts on the ground are? If we understand that we live in the new global order, are not the facts on the ground everything that happens on the earth? How can we know what suffering is unless we know how the world works, unless we know how people act towards each other, unless we know why people act in the way they do? And unless we know how people act and why, how can we alleviate their suffering?

The big questions for today, kiddies, are: do any of my actions increase the suffering of others? If I eat sugar from the Dominican Republic, am I increasing the suffering of others? What is the suffering that causes someone to think that by doing harm to others they are doing the good? How can I do the good? (Hint: The Eightfold Path.)

All essays on these and related topics are already long past due.

And now I am going to back to making bread, my task for the day.

Politics, Sex, Commercialism, Education

the scream

”Though they become our sworn enemies, reviling and persecuting us, we should regard them as bodhisattva manifestations who, in their great compassion, are employing skillful means to help emancipate us from the sinful karma we have produced over countless kalpas through our biased, self-centered views.” Torei Zenji (second entry, down the page a bit, under other sutras)

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I’m cutting my latest loaf of sourdough this morning, and I think it is too wet and heavy. My partner again states that she really likes my bread because it is good for the sandwiches that she takes to work. She says the tomatoes don’t make the bread soggy. All well and good, but what am I doing worrying about making the perfect loaf (a delusional goal) when all around the world most people have a hard time finding enough to eat? I live like the kings of old were accustomed to living, in terms of creature comfort, not in terms of life and death over others. At least not that I’m aware of, or am I?

I was in at the swimming pool a couple of days ago and a fellow in the change room was musing about how it would be nice if the pool bought a heat-less spin dryer to dry the swimming suits. I pointed out that we were going to have to do it the old-fashioned way and dry the suits on a line. He pointed out that the ‘Y’ had a spin dryer. “Maybe the pool management is saving the cost of the electricity and the machine?” I suggested. And then he made what I thought was a nonsequitur. “Somebody pays,” he said. I offered,”Taxes.” He came back with, “Even people in the third world pay for us. They send us all their stuff.” He suggested I look up The Story of Stuff, which I pass on to you in the spirit of dancing lessons from god, or being aware of what is really going on in terms of commercialism and economy.

On many Buddhist themed blogs lately I have been reading various musings, some tortured, some determined, all reflecting on the sorry state of the world today. Topics range from poverty, sex, politics, commercialism to war. The eternal human stuff. Well, if I am going to write yet one more blog about zen, what is my stand on these topics? I started musing about what I thought about politics, although the topic, politics, stands in for all the other topics as a test case.

Lessons learned from Nathan’s blog and Peter’s blog. Nathan writes from a zen perspective, often wondering how things in the world look when subjected to a certain amount of introspection and analysis. Peter directly points to common concerns and often asks how certain difficult topics affect your life, how zen practice affects your perception of the world. Or at least this is sort of what I take from the two of them.

What does Buddhism tell us about the world? This is territory for the Four Noble Truths.

Looking at all the world’s problems from the perspective of the 4NTs

If all is suffering then all the worlds peoples are suffering. What causes suffering? Suffering is the result of having desire, but desire results from having an incorrect or incomplete view of reality. In short (in terms of Buddhism), suffering is the state of not being enlightened. If the great majority of the world’s peoples are short of enlightened then their pursuits, for the most part, can be nothing other than an engagement with and a further perpetration of suffering. When suffering is caused by misapprehension of self and the world, we have to ask what is the major error in perception. It seems to me that the major error is a person’s idea of self. The old zen saw: the problem of the ego. Suffering people often feel that they are more important than other suffering people, that their suffering is somehow more important or significant than other peoples’ suffering. Politics is often called the art of the possible, but it is really the art of one suffering person tying to get advantage over other suffering people. Yes, compromises do happen, but few people are ever satisfied with a compromise. Compromise rarely (like never) stops the suffering.

What is the enlightened person supposed to do? Or more realistically, what can anyone who is writing about zen do about politics when confronted with the solipsism of suffering? Suffering is a real thing. It is everywhere. As zen nuts we vow to alleviate it. Should we get involved with politics if politics does not really relieve suffering? That depends.

So what am I doing writing this blog? I am trying to look at the world from a zen perspective. Trying to be aware of what really is going on. What is really going on in politics is that people try to thrash out some workable compromise. But how can a compromise work unless it makes deluded suffering peoples stop blaming each other for their suffering? If we want to engage in politics we need to point out that what is good for one is what is exactly good for another and that unless the good becomes general, suffering ensues. Supposed enemies are not really enemies in the long run. They are merely suffering people who have the misguided idea that someone else is causing their suffering. Oh, yes, someone might shoot you. But the reason they do so is because they are suffering and have mistakenly blamed you for it. The only way to stop someone or their brother or sister or friend from shooting you in the future is to help them alleviate their suffering. To try to subject your enemies to suffering is no solution at all. The proof of this pudding is that we have an endless history of people blaming each other for their suffering and going to war to put and end to the situation and yet we still have suffering and war. All attempted solutions have so far not worked.

Politics to a zen nut has to be an attempt to educate people about the nature of suffering, and it cannot be making accusatory or judgemental statements, or trying to get the advantage over another. Zen does not cast blame. The “beam in your own eye” is the blame you (I) give others for your suffering.

This is a hard lesson, especially when someone is coming over the hill with guns intent on killing you. How does one have compassion for the person who is causing you pain? The only reason they are causing you pain is because they blame you for causing them pain. This situation is the universal suffering circle from hell.

I have absolutely no idea how to go about educating the world. All I can do is argue that the first step in ending suffering is to stop blaming others for your (mine, our) disease of suffering. Have compassion for the (metaphorical) suicide bomber who sees his/her life as so awful that the only way they can stop their suffering is to cause others to suffer. How to make their life one of less suffering? What do you think?