The Finished Book

It’s been about two months since I wrote here. And the book is done. It was done shortly after the last post and it has been sitting in the book press ever since waiting for the person who commissioned it to come back from Europe. He has family matters to attend to and I have no information re: date of his return. No matter. The book is a book for all that. I’ll not be able to get to another one for a while as the summer is the time to work on the house to try to get it finished. Today I did the final coat resurfacing the bathtub.

The zen in all this is just the zen in all this.

I got up on stage and played bass and sang in front of 200 people a week ago. Conquering an old fear has changed my life. Tonight I have a opening of abstract drawings; no fear.

I am starting to remember people’s names. Something I’ve always been bad at. This is so I can start doing a little community organizing with all the many wonderful artists on the island. Can’t talk to people if you can’t remember their names.

Where did I read this,” “Student: I’m so discouraged. What can I do?
Teacher: Encourage others.”

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The End Papers

When one knows nothing about a topic, it is not necessarily a bad idea to jump in head first – as long as one is willing to put up with all the mistakes one is invariably going to make. In my case all the things that I could do wrong I have done wrong. The process of putting this rather large format book together has been a process of screw it up and fix it.

My Iaido teacher, sensei Ken Manecker, always talked about the importance of the beginner’s mind: One can only learn when one is in the embrace of the beginner’s mind. I wonder if, as in zen, the practise is not so much getting to the point that one does things perfectly, but rather one gets faster and faster at figuring out solutions to the problem of the mistake at hand.

The book is now sewn and glued. Next I will finish the spine and make the case.

The picture above is of the end papers, done with acrylic paint, that keep sticking together whenever I put the book into a press. Then I repair the paper. Why can’t I remember to put waxed paper between the pages? The solution: I thought to write a reminder on each press: “Wax Paper”. I wonder if I will pay any attention.

Glueing Up The Spine

If I had bad days any more this would be one of them. But not being a bad day, it is merely one beset with fear and trepidation. Everything is sure to go wrong. What have I gotten myself into? I know nothing about book binding. Reading books on the subject is no substitute for having a good teacher who can direct one away from the most common errors. Me, I decide to go it alone. Figure out what I am doing as I go. So today I suspect that my signatures are too thick. When I press the signatures into my gluing frame, it looks like the glue will run down at least an eight inch between them. Is this good or bad? I have no idea. After procrastinating for hours, I go ahead, and glue everything up. If it doesn’t work, I have enough paper between the spine and the pictures that I can sew through the face of the paper. There is always a solution. Sometimes it just takes remaining calm in the face of habitual panic and self-loathing while waiting for the solution to come. So I procrastinated by going for a walk with my companion, in the sun, on the beach. She said, “Everything is shining.”

It still is.

loving and dying with eyes wide open

'La mise en tombeau d'Atala' de Anne-Louis Girodet

I’ve been following Peter Renner’s blog (living and dying with eyes wide open) for some time now with much interest. A short while ago he did a series of posts about love and intimacy (Here and here and here). The posts themselves were (are – doesn’t everything exist forever on the internet!?) heartfelt, open and cogent to the problems we all have with loving ourselves enough to let others love us (and to let our selves love others). Even now after years of working on the problem, my early programed-in self-loathing can rear its head in response to the oddest triggers – dharma trying to teach me a new lesson about moment to moment love — and it can do so in the most dramatic and emotional of ways. The practice of zen, and a lot of therapy, has helped me to faster pop the rising bubbles of self-hatred (independent of the form it takes or the excuse it uses). But every once in a while a bubble can reach gigantic proportions before I can pop it and get back to being loving and caring towards myself and others, before I can stop hating myself enough to become compassionate again.

On the other hand, Renner’s post from August 28, 2010, raises what might seem to be a non-related matter: Death! Renner says that whenever he starts writing about death, the number of hits to his site go way down. He wonders if the reason is simply that people do not like to contemplate their own or anyone else’s death. Why not? Good question.

Ancient Greek thought had Eros and Thanatos as opposite heads of the coin called life. If this is so, love and death are necessarily intertwined. Buddhism tells us (please excuse the simplicity) that all is one, and that our task in becoming clear or enlightened or whatever, is to see how things really are.

So what is the relationship between love and death? Compassion is the highest form of love. Compassion for the universe requires us to see it as it is and then love it as it is while trying at the same time to alleviate suffering. The reality is that without death there would be no life or love. This makes me think that if we love life, or if the point of life is to love, then we must love death (all in its own good time, of course, no sense on missing out on our allotted life and love) for without death there would be no life or love.

But how to love death? Is not death the cause of the most suffering? Not necessarily. I argue that self-hatred (loathing, disgust etc.) is far more important. If we hate to think about death, then we do not love it. Why not? We all know the old saw: you have to love yourself in order to love another. Maybe we have to hate our selves before we can hate anything else, including death.

In one post Renner struggles (hard zen work) to learn the intimate difficulties of loving; and in another post, he struggles to learn the intimate difficulties attendant to the reality that we all die. Maybe the struggle is the same? All is one?

What I am trying to say here is that if we do not love ourselves then we cannot love others and more importantly we will fear death. To wit: one of the great difficulties in loving another being is the fear that the loved person will reject us. If they reject us it is easy to interpret the rejection as them saying we are bad. If we have any form of self-hatred then the rejection would confirm our worst thoughts about our self. The thing about death: we can see it as the worse rejection because it seems to totally remove any further chance that we can be loved either by our self (if we have not yet learned to do so), or by others. What it boils down to is that the prerequisite to being able to contemplate ones own death is that one must learn to have compassion for oneself.

Wish me luck in this endeavour and I wish you luck also. Or as they say, Namaste.

Emotional Radios

Broadcasting to the Universe

I had been working at a ferry terminal for about ten years. Every Sunday afternoon there would be four of us cramped into the small (five foot square) ticket booth. We all had radios that we needed for communication with each other while on the road and out in the terminal. But in the booth, we needed a place to store the bulky things (cell phones they were not) that allowed instant access when we weren’t immediately using them. The four radios would end up piled between the two cash registers on the small, 18” wide table (that’s about 38 centimetres to anyone not from the USA, or to anyone from Canada who is as old as I am). On that tiny table were also the log book, pens, piles of scrap paper, lists of reserved vehicles, destination tags and various miscellanea. The radios were pure irritation. Always piled on top, getting in the way.

One convenient thing about the radios: they had a strap useful for hanging them from one’s shoulder. So there I was one busy Sunday afternoon, deep in the middle of the rush, irritated yet again because I couldn’t find what I needed under the pile of radios. Ten years I took me to see the obvious. I don’t know what made me see the light. Whatever. I left the cash register, got a hammer and a couple of nails from the back room. Drove the nails into the wall. Took the radios and hung them up. Ten years. Problem solved.

Well It hasn’t been ten years, but the obvious just struck me. Here I am writing about the Bodhisattva Vows, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and it wasn’t until just the other days that I realized that the Bodhisattva Vows are merely the Four Noble Truths tricked up into intentions rather than mere statements of theoretical fact.

The theoretical statement of facts called the Four Noble Truths:

1) All is suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire.
3) There is a way out of suffering.
4) Follow the Eightfold Path.

The Boddhsattva vows:
1) Sentient being are numberless, I vow to liberate them.
2) Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
3) Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
4) The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

Both together:

1) All is suffering, therefore everyone suffers, and I vow to end the suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire, desires are endless, and I vow to stop desires.
3) Dharma gates are boundless. Dharma gates are the path out of suffering, and I vow to stop suffering by passing the lesson of each Dharma gate.
4) The Eightfold Path is Buddha’s way. It is unsurpassable, and I vow to embody it.

The Four Noble Truths are the theory; the Bodhisattva Vows state ones intention to embrace the theory (I suspect that all the sutras and all the writings of the sages boil down to the Four Noble Truths). The theory becomes fact once one has done the work to become aware, to be enlightened (or what ever name you use to name the end of suffering). There is not much more than that. When you are not engaged in suffering (and you are aware that you are not), then you have kensho (so simple to say, so hard to do). The trick in all this? Suffering is endless, vast in scope and covers all sorts of things beyond mere pain: envy rather than joy in other peoples’ joy; sadnesses rather than awe at the mystery of the universe; desire rather than delight in what one has; the need to gossip rather than searching out the unenlightened parts of one’s own being; the need to be loved (that statement will be controversial) rather than recognizing that one needs to love oneself first in order to love others. The list is endless: the need to be liked, honoured, admired, to judge, to be rich, to be better, to be exalted, to be enlightened above others…. No need to go on.

Oh, and sitting meditation? What does that have to do with anything? Meditation is giving ourselves the time and space needed to see what is going on inside and then practising to dissolve the attachments. And then maybe one day the light will come on and we will know what to do with our emotional radios.

Happiness

Are we having fun yet?

This post was inspired by Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests.

According to Ludwig Wittgenstein (if I understand him properly), language is a tricky business in that all words have meanings that are idiosyncratic. Each one of us thinks and feels something completely different when we hear or use any particular word. Wittgenstein likens language to a large map. Each word inhabits one address on the map. Each person understands any particular word not in terms of the address but in terms of the route they took to learn the word. It is like going to school. We each took a different path to get there and had different emotional, intellectual and physical experiences along the way. It is the experiential route that brought each person to the word that informs, colours and gives meaning to the word.

What about concrete words such as ‘apple’? We can each experience an apple by biting into it and so come to some common idea of what the word apple means. But each one of us has an idea of the word apple that is coloured differently than all others’, depending on the apple pies our grandmother did or did not bake, by the day we fell out of the apple tree, by the wasp nest hanging in the midst of the fruit, by the story in the bible or by the story about Newton…

Abstract words are a different kettle of fish. In effect, the word ‘happiness’ only has a private address on the map. Worse, each person’s word ‘happiness’ has a private and undisclosed address. Only the individual knows where their experience of happiness resides. Because of this, the word ‘happiness’ is almost useless because it is not easy to know what others mean by the word. Happiness is a warm gun. I’m so happy to see you. What you did made me feel happy. Is everybody happy? Let me make you happy, baby.

Nathan asks if we can find out what everybody really wants. We already suspect that what everyone wants cannot be happiness because happiness always means different things? And we cannot say everybody wants the same thing when what they want is described by the word happiness which meaning completely different things for different people. So if happiness is ruled out, is there something that everybody wants?

One of my favourite stories (I do not know if the story is true or an urban legend, nor do I know where I heard it or if I only dreamt it, but I like it anyway):

Some people were studying gorillas, their social interactions and contracts, how they shared things and how they played scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Someone wondered what a sudden change of state would do to the social contracts in the herd (tribe, group). So they dumped a load of bananas into the gorillas’ clearing, far more bananas than the group could eat before the fruit rotted. The silver back, the toughest honcho, wouldn’t let anyone else near the bananas. I like to think that he thought that with more bananas than he could ever eat, he had enough to last him forever and so didn’t need to cultivate his mutual aid relationships with anyone else. He drove all the other gorillas away from the pile of bananas. No more scratch my back, I’ll scratch your. No more Mr Nice Guy.

When the bananas rotted, the silver back wanted back into the mutual aid society. All the other apes gave him a hard time, wouldn’t interact with him. It took him forever to win back his place.

What this story says to me is that, in terms of our type of capitalism, our western economic adventurers have figured out how to abstract the bananas and make them last forever (turned them into money), thereby allowing the monied to ignore the social interdependence that makes everything grow. The American Dream, the Western Dream, is to become wealthy, comfortable, privileged, beholden to no one.

I’d say that our biology tells us to want all the bananas. But in every animal society, the biological imperative of wanting all the bananas is tempered by the overwhelming need to live in a mutual aid network. Oh so clever humans have figured out how to do an end run around mutual aid networks by inventing non-perishable money to stand in for bananas. The idea of money allows our desire to have all the bananas run rampant, untempered by cooperative effort. As soon as money shows up in a society, everyone forgets their mutual aid pac and goes for all the money, for all the bananas. As far as I can see, cornering the market on bananas is merely a misguided attempt to stop suffering by attempting to control the universe (by buying it with the power of money), to make it do what we want. What we want the universe to do is to stop making us suffer. Yes, and if we stop suffering we might call that happiness.

You might think the word suffering is like the word happiness in that everyone suffers in different ways. Yes, but according to Buddha, all states of suffering can be alleviated in the same way for each person, but unless we learn to stop being attached to our suffering (more on this later) the desire for happiness cannot be fulfilled except in the most fleeting of ways. There is no one way to get all the bananas. There aren’t enough bananas in the world to allow everyone to get all the bananas. According to Buddha, instead of buying lottery tickets, the sure and only way to stop suffering is to rigorously apply the knowledge contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Yes suffering exists, and suffering exists because one desires all the bananas. But you don’t have to suffer just because it’s impossible to have all the physical and emotional bananas. Check out the Eightfold Path.