Sunday, February 27, 2011


The people are grumbling. As usual, about the wrong things.

For myself, I think that it's fine that gas prices have shot up a few dozen cents. The debatable evils of price speculation and stock markets aside, these soaring prices are occurring as a result of the people of northern Africa and the greater Arab region fighting for freedom. If the price of having a half dozen countries topple despots and dictators is for me to pay a few dollars more per week for the privilege, the luxury, of driving distances that once took all day to traverse, and doing it in a mere a quarter of an hour at inhuman speeds two, three, four times a day, well, I'll do it smiling. I won't support a war fought (supposedly) to force freedom on people who didn't ask us for it, but I'm glad to pay extra when the people themselves decide they've had enough of tyranny and choose to do something about it. It's the least I can do.

(the fact that the protests and revolts may be caused by soaring food prices thanks in part to us turning a quarter of the U.S. corn crop into the boondoggle of ethanol to keep the SUV fleet going leaves me a bit muddled-feeling, but the point stands).

(there are other reasons for the rising food prices. Here, read this: The Rising Prices of Food & Political Instability )

Friday, February 25, 2011

Union Thoughts

Been thinking lately about unions and the stuff going on in Wisconsin. So this may be a long, rambling post, a bit all over the place. Sorry, but my head is spinning. I really wish I was in Madison, part of the happenings.

The other day I started asking myself if I really felt the alienation Marx talked about that was inherent to the wage woker. Is my labor being unfairly bought, or is the valuation represented by the wages fair? For the first time, instead of just assuming they were unfair, I began to really consider how I feel, if it really feels like alienation, or if it's more of an intellectual belief.

I started to wonder just who it is that sets these values. Physical labor by and large brings less in wages than non-physical work. Why is that? Now, I'm not only talking about the work of essential services, like garbage collection, farm labor, and the like, which one could argue should be paid far far more given the value of the work; but also work such as wiring for all our fancy electronics-- labor for luxuries, so to speak. Of course, it seems to come down to skilled vs unskilled labor, the latter making the least.

But why should, say, construction laborers, who put astounding amounts of energy into their work make so much less than some guy who maybe just went to school longer, who sits easy in his office, at most exerting mental effort, which can be stressful but is not an equivalent to energy (read: life) expenditure. Yet that guy makes more money (read: energy, i.e. life). This is madness.

I don't see why skill must come into it like it does. Yes, a skilled mason should make more than a guy lugging bricks (and don't give me that bullshit apples-oranges comparison of a doctor to a janitor); but lugging bricks is fucking hard, and he should be compensated well for it, not paid a measly minimum wage which won't support a family and won't allow his work to sustain himself into old age, when his work has ruined his body and he can't continue lugging bricks.

I also don't see why someone who is sitting in a factory somewhere in China, plugging one wire into one port on a chip all fucking day makes a fifty cents an hour (yes, I made that figure up), while the laptop is sold for hundreds of dollars. The laptop is impossible without the guy plugging the wires in, and he's giving his entire life to this task, for the chance to continue eating. Those profits should be shared-- the labor is the essence of the laptop's creation.

So yes, obviously without unions, labor is devaluated continually. The "race to the bottom." They say the market sets the prices, but it's really the "owner" class. They want to make the most money with as little cost to themselves, and sadly labor is counted a cost. They will pay a worker as little as they can get away with. And when the workforce is over-large (high unemployment), they can get away with ever lower wages. It's an interesting fact that wages (and union membership, hmmm...) have declined since the 1970s, while profits have soared. It's also "interesting" to know that the boom and bust cycles of capitalist economies are in many ways created by the elites via interest rates and such, and are not accidents or strictly inherent. 

Power to the People

I consider unions the essence of (healthy) capitalism. I also think the term "collective bargaining" is redundant. Without the collective, there is no bargaining. There is only groveling before the boss, a sort of tyrant of the economic world. You can ask for a raise, but there's no negotiating. You are free to find work elsewhere, but of course all the other factories are paying the same, or less maybe, and you know, you aren't getting any younger. I actually find it amazing that a society that loves to talk about democracy is terrified of democracy in the workplace.

Well, to answer my initial question, which I've been thinking about almost nonstop for days, is yes, I do feel alienation, I do feel used. Here I am, reboxing files from their damaged boxes into new ones at a storage warehouse, helping keep Bank of America's and EMC Mortgage Company's and tons of other banks', lenders', lawyers' and businesses' files neat and clean and safe, knowing they're making millions and I'm here slaving in the dust and fluorescent lighting of a warehouse for a pittance, straining my back and tired on my feet. So, the first thought I had when I saw the seemingly endless rows of file boxes keeps coming back to me: a fire in here would be... amazing to see. Huge. Spectacular. And perhaps even just.

Now, I'm not terribly unhappy at my job. The people are cool there, I get along well with most of them, especially the guy I work closest with, another guy doing reboxing. The boss is cool, and generally stays in his office, so you don't have anyone breathing down your neck, and the work, though boring and mindless isn't terrible; it gives me time to think as I do this repetitive task. I laugh plenty, and, except for Fridays, the days pass quickly enough. It works for now. (and just to be explicit, to avoid idiotic accusations, I would NEVER set fire to the place. Not my style of bucking the system. I'd rather just live a life less ordinary)

Still, it's sad to be wishing for the day to end. I often half-jokingly refer to wage work as selling my life for money, but that's exactly what it is. I'm just waiting for 4 PM and the weekend (the 8 hr day and the weekend, of course, brought to you by unions). I'm wishing my life away. So yeah, I'm alienated. I don't share in any of Bank of America's profits, though I'm indirectly working for them. As a temp, I'm not even a real employee of the corporation I work for. And of course more than half of the employees are temps, a clever way of cutting costs; that is, for paying people less money than they should be getting. When this happens in France, the students and youth fill the streets of the cities with protests; here in America, we just bend over and say "please sir, may I have another."

So yeah, it actually terrifies me to see the unions so under threat. They were built over grueling decades by the actual blood of courageous men and women who would not be taken advantage of. They stood up to the goons and pinkertons, the police and the bosses, and won their right to a decent wage. That's all it was about. All the rhetoric about "greedy unions" is mostly bullshit. They're not being unreasonable, though I admit there is corruption in them. But the idea of unions is sound, and all they want is a proper value for the life-energy they give an employer. The unions are in a weak shape, but it's the main thing standing between us and full on fascism. It's interesting to note that the first people Hitler sent to the concentration camps were unionists. They are a direct threat to corporate control (fascism being just another word for corporatism).

This is one of the biggest issues facing the nation right now. I pray that the public union members in Wisconsin don't fold over; and if they are stripped of their rights to bargain, I hope the outrage persists and that, whether physically or in terms of "the process," they rage against this corporate machine and fight until they win.

...divided we fall

It saddens me to know that if in the end the unions fall, it will require another uphill fight someday down the line to build new ones, and that the people will probably have to suffer in tenements and degrading work in terrible conditions for terrible wages until the fury has built enough. Because that is what is at stake. Think these penny pinching CEO's won't slowly whittle down all the unions' hard fought wins? Watch for the 6 day work week to return, and longer hours, ever fewer and poorer benefits and ever lower wages, worse conditions... it's already started, folks.

What makes me wonder is, who do these corporations think is going to buy their junk when no one has enough money for food or rent or enough clothes to cover their bodies? That is, when the middle class is gone and we're all serfs again.

Of course, the fact of Peak Oil (occurred in 2006, I now read) and the coming end of growth economies may make most of this all moot, as the entire system falls, but that's a whole other post.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My Practice

Over the last 8 years since I discovered Buddhism and meditation and all, I've always struggled with consistency. I'd maybe do a five minute session for a few days in a row, then stop utterly for months. Very inconsistent piss-poor performance. Often my motivation would have to do with whatever book I happened to be reading; that is, reading a book about eastern philosophy or spirituality often put me in the mind of meditating, but not long after the book was done, interest waned.

But for the last three months or more, I've been on a daily routine, through no fault of my own. I fell into it, you might say, not due to anything I was reading or thinking. At most I just sort of felt it was time to "get serious" (an unfortunate terminology). And I've hardly missed a day.

True, sometimes I sit there for a few minutes and can't focus at all, and quit. Sometimes I sit there for a half hour drifting with my thoughts, hardly practicing awareness. I fidget a lot. Hey, I didn't say I was doing well, just that I was doing it. Part of my problem is always doing it right before bed, when I'm too tired. But I'm pleased overall; it's a step. And sometimes I do sit there calm and focused, really in the spirit of Zen.

On occasion I use mantras, like "so-hum" or "om mani padme hum" but mostly I just sit, watching the breath, or my heartbeat, or trying to use sound by accepting all I hear without comment. This is harder than it sounds, and I fail mostly. Sometimes I think I need a few months in a monastery to really succeed. Doing this alone, with no one to push me but myself, no one around to feel at least a sort of peer pressure to keep sitting... not easy. Right now, no one cares if I jump up three minutes into a twenty minute session.

The biggest help I know of, to fight the urge to stop meditating is: no matter what you're doing, it's what you wanted to do. And, I try to connect with the spirit of the thing, with the thousands of others who must be meditating at any given moment. That doesn't help much, but a little, maybe. At any rate, I hope to slowly improve my attention as I continue to do this, as this sitting is at least now a routine.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Save the Planet?

This clip, by a favorite comedian of mine, says what I've believed a long time. See, I was thinking the other evening, as I sat out on the back porch looking at the chain link fences and telephone lines, listening to the endless roar of airplanes and lawnmowers, about how sad it was that the Earth here was so subdued, no longer free to be what it wants to be (around here, I suppose a mix of prairie and oak-hickory forest).

Wait, what? The Earth doesn't have wants. The land is only itself, it is what it is. It does not feel our heavy hand upon it. It doesn't care about our fences and smog. It doesn't care about the "non-native" sparrows busy everywhere. And if lawns stare blank and dull at the sky where the wildflower prairie once winked at the sun with a million glowing eyes, the sky knows not the change. The animal populations rise and fall, in accordance to the land's ability to provide for them, and they don't know any loss. They simply become fewer, or leave an area for good. If extinct, they aren't even around to mourn it if they could.

Furthermore. If half of, say, Iowa's topsoil is lost to the gullies and washed away to the sea, if the Earth is strip mined and gutted and fracked up the ass, well, it doesn't care. The earth will continue to be what it is. If what is is a ruin, something with less diversity and potential for life, it doesn't give two shits.

The only place this is a problem is in the human mind. I say this not in defense of environmental despoilation, nor from a sense of despair; it's just that more than anything, the problem is in ourselves, not out there in the Earth.

I'm having a hard time expressing what I mean, the idea seems to slip away as I try to get at it...

The land isn't meant to be anything. Sure, if we disappeared and no one was around to mow the lawns, Dallas would again become a savanna-like ecoregion, or whatever the changing climate will allow. Yes, the hills of Appalachia, or their rocks at least, stood as they are for 400 million years, through cycles of erosion and uplift, of being buried by silt, and then uncovered by river cutting... if we blast the peaks away for the coal and leave a flattened sore behind, Earth doesn't care about the change; it will eventually wash itself clean and start making new soil all over again, someday a new forest will grow there.

Yeah, this stuff still saddens me, but I must remember that the sadness is a human feeling, and a passing thing at that. While I may have to return to this point later to try to say what I mean, at least what can be taken from this is a more grounded sense of reality, and the problem of the environment.

It is a human problem and nothing more. I think it's an important distinction.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Like an old gull,
his life's one love long dead,

I wing far above the screaming flock,
idle on drifts and scraps
of wind,

against the sky silent and blue,
roaming the lonely hemisphere,
its mists and miles
compassed in this span of wings—

without pause,
thought, or comment, the ocean's fathoms
lose themselves behind me.

My eye swallows
the horizon's flat line
rather than the endless bump
and squabble of society.

Trading one confusion
for another.

A flash of light
from a breast clear white,
seen once and not again, I go.
Time is my possession now,
distance is what I eat, and eternity
is what I feed.

Dawn. Standing on the empty strand
eyes half closed,
with flowers of foam rolling in
as they always have,
as if remembering;

grey as the sea-fogs
giving birth to this winter sun,
I am returning
in a broken circle to you.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Joining the Green Movement

The other day I discovered the website, a site that has tons of videos of talks and speeches by thoughtful, innovative people; I've been watching probably too many videos in my free time. I'll post links to some of my favorites at the bottom of this post. But this one I watched this morning:

Edward Burtynsky on manufactured landscapes

It's a long video for TED, but worth the time. It was interesting and in ways beautiful, but also hard for me to watch. All his images of China, and elsewhere, and the explosive growth, made me remember an article I read years ago, Humans as Cancer. Is there such a thing as explosive cancer? China would be it. But then, China is only the metastasis of Western growth models. It's a scary world we're busy making; it hurts my heart to look at it, to think about it.

I've long felt a despair of sorts, as far as environmentalism goes. For me, it has always been the major issue. I know on this blog I talk a lot about Zen and spirituality and such, but that's only so many words, probably useless to talk about. But the Green Movement, well, that's the big one. If ever there were a field I would go into, that would be it: sustainability, permaculture, deep ecology; these things thrill me, intellectually and practically. Spiritually too, I guess.

But I look at our culture and think it's a waste of time. Despair, not as an oppressive emotion (most of the time), but just as a knowing. We will never be able to transform into a sustainable culture, we are cancer. It stops me from acting, as I continually think it would be a waste of time to devote my life to these things, burnout and broken dreams the inevitable result. Better to escape to the hills, on a private off-the-grid homestead, in my own little corner of the good earth and hope the cancer doesn't follow me in. Fulfilling as that life could be in some ways, it is also apparent that this is supremely selfish.

It is the product of despair: the foolish humans cannot be helped, so fuck 'em. No use trying to fix a fundamentally flawed system, let it crash. It will crash, and what comes then will be an equilibrium-- but only because it was forced to be. We cannot engineer it, our thin layer of rationality cannot beat back the animal greed for more and more. It is a sad future I often foresee, akin to pondering the burning of the library in Alexandria centuries ago-- we will lose so many good things, advanced medical knowledge and ability, other advanced knowledge, democracy perhaps, and our one shot at having enough energy and reach to globally solve problems of hunger, poverty, and oppression through intelligent and compassionate connections and solutions. We may end up sustainable, but probably in the way that the Dark Ages were sustainable. Forced simplicity is poverty.

Growth for the sake of growth, Edward Abbey insightfully said, is the philosophy of the cancer cell. This is evil. There was potential, but it has been squandered. We grew, enriching a few people at the expense of the many, and of the wider biosphere to boot. If only we had grown compassionately, to bring a real "good life" not of material acquisition but of quality life to all. Used fossil fuel energy in moderation to piggyback us into a clean world, in tune with Nature, use resources conservatively and wisely, not, for example, to make products we use once then throw out (bottled water is an obvious example of such ridiculousness). We have been fools. Even the Green Movement, which I'd long hoped for but given up on, surprised me when it became popular... but it was quickly co-opted and ruined by consumerism, now become a cheap version of what it needed to be. Failure. Thus my despair.

A top-down goal is not what I want; those have a tendency to devolve into the totalitarian one-size-fits-all bleakness we see in evangelical religion and fascist states. The world is diverse, and needs a diversity of solutions. I know the value of and need for government and corporate action in all this, but I think the real change is going to come from the roots, organically; something that can be implemented in countless local variations. A network format, not a pyramid. Really, the model of the industrial revolution that brought us here: the individual entrepreneurial spirit, but put to something more than the profit motive. Which is really the ego motive: I want mine, and fuck all you others. But a wider goal, or shall we say vision, is needed first.

So, I watch these videos and feel inspired. I've occasionally met people doing these things, like on my AT thru-hike; in towns and on the trail, they were my first real contact with people who are doing the good things. And I still want to be involved in all that, in a hopeful future. Biomimricy amazes me, permaculture techniques and just the basic discoveries amaze me. The idea of networks, though I have little understanding of them, blows my mind. The stuff about using mushrooms and fungi, among other things, in biologically integrated technologies leaves me feeling giddy (the added thought that fungal networks may be conscious is a further thrill). Green roofs, alternative building techniques (cob, straw bale), community gardens, passive heating/cooling... all wonderful and exciting.

I just don't know how to get involved. I find myself drawn to organic farming/permaculture, through the WWOOF organization, and plan to try it out, if not this spring then next fall. Hopefully I can meet people who can point me in the ways I need to go. My problem is I have a great need to be outside, doing real work. I'm a paradox; I'm a "deep thinker" but for me, in the end abstraction is not an honest living. Too much sitting around thinking, not enough implementing. I want to be out there, in the real, doing the work. But also, I'm not an engineer, I won't be designing products or new technologies. I want to have my own land and live these ideas myself, but I think to limit myself to that is selfish and, well, lonely, futile. I want to have some impact on the world more than just improving a few acres of soil. Hope, I suppose, springs eternal, even in the face of terrible odds. I just don't know where or how to begin.

Neat videos:
Alex Steffen sees a sustainable world
Paul Stamets on 6 ways mushrooms can save the world
Janine Benysus: Biomimricy in action
Michael Pollan gives a plant's-eye-view
The Web as random acts of kindness
Christopher McDougall: are we born to run?

Friday, February 11, 2011


Freedom. You hear a lot about it these days, they harp on it incessantly. They, you know: the politicians, the law makers, boundary drawers, those blind to irony. Or maybe it is we who are blind to it. I mean, the Liberty Bell is cracked...

Stop to think on freedom but a moment, and the limits loom into view. It is, we say, a free country, but just how free really? Boundaries always lurk in the shadows of the mind, the hidden recesses of a culture. Cultures are defined by these; definitions, edges, these are boundaries, seperating us from them. No society is truly free.

But, free in many ways we are. Free to be different, in a non-threatening way. Free to think, but not to alter consciousness. Free to choose between a million worthless products. Free and encouraged to be distracted. Freedom of the open road, but if you walk, expect the police, the mirrored sunglasses and pointed questions. Don't be caught without any money, or you will be free to go to jail for vagrancy. Free to think but not to act; that is, free to go along in a thousand different ways, but not to protest: expect handcuffs, billy clubs, tear gas. Or else free to be ignored. Free to live anywhere, save on the street, where the cops rouse the sleeping bums. Free, however, and very free, to be poor. Free to change your social position, if you can afford it. Free to sink in free fall to utter loneliness, isolation, poverty, despair, sickness and insanity, but not free to put an end to it all. You are free, you are required, to live. But not free are the basics of life: water, food, housing. Free to breathe dirty air, drink dirty water, and to leave the lights on always.

I guess what I mean is, I no longer understand this word the politicians use. I guess what I really want to know, is what does liberty mean to you? What does it mean to be free?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Been feeling a little down in general lately, thinking it could be caffeine withdrawals: they take four or five days, and I'm on day three. Weird, all this from just one cup of coffee, I guess I'm sensitive to it. Right now I'm trying to decide if I really mind being addicted to caffeine. I generally abhor the thought of being addicted to anything, but caffeine suits me. I like the lift, really appreciate it, as I tend towards low energy. Also it helps me write and think, get's the juices flowing, and that feels good too. But if I'm going to be this sensitive to one cup of joe, I either need to dive into a full on habit, or go decaf for good. These withdrawals suck. I admit I'm leaning towards accepting this addiction.

Really, though, it's kind of an interesting thing to experiement with it; you never notice these effects (for me, very low energy at the 48 hour mark, and generally depressive feelings for a few days) when you're having caffeine daily. I wonder if everyone gets this way and just never notices, either because they never have a long enough break from the stuff or because they just attribute it to other causes, sleeping poorly or feeling sad about other things.

I was thinking today at work that perhaps caffeine is the most defining drug of our Western culture. Tea for the British was (and is?) a critical thing, and let's face it, we in America are just the bastard stepchildren of the Brits. We, however, upped the ante to coffee. It fuels our 24-7 culture of workaholism and constant motion. It is often said that western man doesn't know how to slow down and really relax, to rest and reflect. Perhaps the fact that from early childhood we are dosed daily with caffeine: pop, tea, coffee, and now energy drinks and caffeine pills. I personally graduated to coffee in middle school, never having been big on pop, besides root beer. I think I was imitating my father, too.

It is, of course, hard to know if we are go go go because of caffeine, or if we find caffeine fits into a pre-existing (hyper)active cultural trait. And of course there is a fatal flaw: green tea (and tea in general?) was first used by Buddhist monks, a pretty relaxed bunch. They used it to stay awake in long meditation sessions. And the Muslims with their coffee (it is definitely the cultural drug of the Arabs), I don't know enough to say if they are a hyperactive lot. They always seem pretty literate, though, and thoughtful, deep; perhaps they channeled their buzz into religious thought, art, writing, poetry, and the like, not to mention street protests. And generally caffeine is the most used psychoactive substance on Earth. So it's not like it's unique to us.

Maybe this is all a little silly, this whole idea. Maybe I'm taking this to absurd lengths. But If you all have thoughts, I'd like to hear them. Meanwhile I think I'm gonna go make up some green tea...

Monday, February 7, 2011

Nirvana For All! 2

I suppose my previous post may have been misleading, as it was simply a thought experiment, hoping to illustrate some of the ridiculous aspects present even in great wisdom traditions. It is not my position of things. The spiritual progression I was referring to was our increasingly clear understanding of things, not the actual advancement of souls through "better and better" forms of life.

I don't think I believe in a spiritual evolution, or any hierarchy of plant vs animal vs human. Not to say I don't believe in biological evolution. But, well, biological evolution is not linear, for one thing. The bacteria in my colon is just as modern as I am, and they are not trying to evolve towards humanity. And spiritually, they are as much one with the Tao as am I. I don't think the trees, birds, and bacteria are the souls of humans that have fucked up and gotten all this karma stuck to them, nor do I think humans are higher spiritually than anything else.

My original question was, how could a tree devolve at all? It can't fight against its upward growth, can't stop its roots from searching downwards, can't stop its leaves falling in autumn. And how can it progress? It is already perfectly at one with its nature, and has no way to be otherwise. As for acting instinctually: I don't think instinct means unconsciousness. Animals are directly aware of the world, but they aren't self-aware, aren't actively choosing, aren't questioning their motives.

But, wouldn't some ability to choose or change be required to spiritually evolve? What other mechanism is there for spiritual growth? It seems to depend on awareness, self-consciousness, reflection, self-discipline and/or increasing understanding. We should be careful about judging other beings by human standards. A bird doesn't have self-knowledge or the ability to reflect on its actions. I don't consider this ignorance. Humans have these abilities, and I don't consider them as better or higher for it. It is just a different "inner nature," a different way to be.

(Now, gradations do exist. Apes, dolphins, elephants, and such do have some level of self-awareness, and the ability to reason. That itself is a fascinating question and perhaps useful for understanding the “human question,” but is a topic for another post.)

Often we say, we are not in harmony with the Tao. But this is not true. In reality, we are one with it, and could never be otherwise so long as we exist; there is no escaping it. Just as when we think about the past or future, totally wrapped up in it, those thoughts occur in the present moment. Somehow, the discord is part of the harmony. Seeing through the illusion that we are anything other than our nature, that is enlightenment.

This is why I don't think spiritual evolution is a helpful idea. All that is, is at one with the Tao. All this about progressing towards something is actually a hindrance. We're already there, it's just a matter of seeing it. This is why the Buddha was right: there's no need to be born into the Brahmin class, and this is why I don't think animals and plants or anything has to wait to be a human. Tao is always right there, waiting to be seen. The only “problem” anywhere, is that we humans are living in illusion. Animals (and plants and bacteria) aren't in illusion, because they are directly confronting reality as it is, not as they pretend it to be; so there is no need to "evolve" towards any spiritual state. They're there.

At most I'm willing to grant a sort of spiritual evolution that has nothing to do with progress or higher or lower states. One where the universe is toying with novelty, in finding new (not better) ways of looking at itself. Maybe a sort of ratcheting up into more complexity, as per Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Universe or Robert Pirsig's Metaphysic of Quality. So novelty arises. For us that means self-consciousness and reflection. But that doesn't mean all living things are going that way. It just means the universe ratcheted "up," and it stuck in humanity. From here it may ratchet some more. And who knows, maybe in some animal out there, it will ratchet in a still different direction, unknown to us.

Disclaimer: it's amazing how easy it is to sound like you know what you're talking about with these things, isn't it? Truth is, the "human question" continues to baffle me. We do seem unique, and I don't know what to think about it. At the same time, no one knows what it's like to be a tree or a bird, so it's all speculation in the end. For that matter, I don't understand what living in tune with the Tao while still having self-consciousness and reflection means, what that would look like. How to be human without this inner conflict and tension. I don't really even know what consciousness is, though I consider it the ground of being. This blog is just a way for me to work on hammering all these questions out, and is to be taken provisionally. Your comments often spur me on, forcing me to think deeper, or see different angles, so I appreciate that.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Nirvana For All!

Not yet become a Buddha,
    this ancient pine tree,
          dreaming --Issa

Issa was a great poet, my favorite haiku master, he's very "human." But while the image here is beautiful, I don't like the philosophy underneath it. Okay, so: the Hindus believed that one must be born in the Brahmin caste in order to attain Moksha, enlightenment. Buddhism arose out of that milleau, asked, "why wait?" and said Nirvana is there for all, always. But it was said that all other beings, from gods to demons, angels to the grasses and insects, were stuck in the wheel of Samsara, waiting to be human; for only humans could attain Nirvana. Now, this seems pleasant, for a moment-- even the gods envy our auspicious position; good for us, we're in the right sphere of life. But there are implications (aren't there always?).

I look out my window at the oak growing up through the lawn, and wonder what this tree could ever do to produce the karma, good or bad, that is required to keep it in this wheel of samsara, the round of suffering. It's just a tree! It grows exactly as it does, perfectly. No ulterior motives, no nothing. Likewise the birds in its branches; they are simply themselves. Even if they do have glimmers of recognizable consciousness, they act on instinct, they live in the moment, as the Buddhas instruct. Karma is translated as "action," understood as acting with expectation; trees and birds don't act that way. Crossing into Taoism, the central idea is to attain a state of wu-wei, or "non-doing," in the sense of just going with the flow of the situations, of the Tao; it is the mark of a sage. And yet this is exactly what the tree is doing out there.

So one must wonder: if a tree or a bird or any other living thing dies, after its life of pure existence, is it reborn as a human again? It there, between one human life and another, a one-life interlude as some other creature or plant? It leads to a ridiculous chain of logic: imagine how many insects die every day, how many rodents, or any of the smaller creatures. A seed, an acorn, is alive, it is a baby tree; but most do not live to adulthood, most don't make it out of the seed. What about individual cells? In my body, untold numbers of cells die every day, both my own cells and the bacteria. They didn't ring up any karma, surely. Point is, there aren't enough humans to be born to offset the supposed progression from plant to animal to human.

And on the other hand, if a man is bad in this life, accumulates much karma, he is often imagined to be reborn as a worm or a bean plant or whatever. This is seen as bad. I say, hey, great! To live as anything other than a human is to live in peace. Ever seen an irritated tree? Or a spiteful worm? A bird miserable about his lot in life? Animals, and of course plants, don't worry, don't plot, don't stress, don't agonize over decisions, don't act out of hatred (or out of compassion for that matter). They simply do their thing, purely. Wu-wei.

The difference is the difference between pain and suffering. The former is physical, but the latter is purely mental. It's the build-up of all suffering into one moment, through memory and the miserable, self-centered "why me?" thoughts. Animals feel pain as pain, but they don't worry about hurting; they simply hurt. Only humans suffer. We're the ones out of sync; the trees are doing just fine. And if bitter old grandpa was reborn as a dung beetle, good for him! He's escaped the wheel.

All kidding aside, it's kind of a natural progression of thought, I think. From class oriented salvation, to human oriented salvation, to Buddhahood for all that lives, and for the rocks as well. Ever farther from the heirarchies we go. To leave behind the human centered concepts has been a theme of the past few centuries, thanks to telescopes and microscopes and science. It's good; it lets us shed such confusions and contradictons, it leads to a more honest spiritual system, a more reasonable philosophy.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Snow Storm Post

the man's grunt                    
on seeing his windshield—
dawn-lit frost

So the news is the big winter storm hitting the country. It even brought some arctic weather to us here in Dallas-Fort Worth, temperatures around 20, and enough snow and ice (about an inch) to close all schools and work. Not that anyone told me, I was up at 5:30 for the slow and dangerous drive in over a solid sheet of ice, sat in the parking lot for an hour waiting for someone, anyone, to show up. Bastards. But it's all good, nice to have a day off, though I know in Michigan I never once had a "snow day" from work... Texans are pussies.

I love snowstorms. It's good to have the bustle of the city world forced to slow down. Though here there's none of the shared cameraderie like when a city is buried in feet of snow and everyone's outside shoveling, pretending to complain but always with the hint of a smile and a glimmer in their eyes... still, while I was at the coffee shop treating myself to too much coffee, there was still the requisite good-natured grumbling between us patrons and the staff.

Meanwhile, outside Winter was smiling her great white toothy smile, laughing in the little "dust devils" of powdery snow busy drifting everywhere in a thousand intricate patterns, glittering in a million places as the ice throws back broken scraps of sunlight. The people complain but Winter is glorified in their very breath, the angry words transformed into a praise of things frozen immediately upon leaving their mouths.

Though I don't miss frigid temperatures of Detroit all that bad, it's nice to get a taste of winter. I'm a northerner at heart, and it's still surreal to me to see old men out mowing their dust-billowing lawns in January. So here's a few winter-themed haiku in honor of this probably equally brief moment of winter, at least for us here in north Texas.

frosted glass...
the silver moon seen
through winter-bare trees

silent as the snowfall...
the crow,
flying away.

the puppy's cocked head
in her first snowfall--
how interesting this life is!

deep snow
and paper birch—
the silence of white light

the starling's
speckled breast--
flying through the flurries

winter fog
off the sea...
one crow calling