January 10, 2009

Alone looking at the mountain

All the birds have flown up and gone;
A lonely cloud floats leisurely by.
We never tire of looking at each other -
Only the mountain and I.

Li Po, 701 – 762


January 09, 2009

The flower sermon

The theme at Goat Rope lately is Buddhism, Zen and otherwise, although you'll also find links and comments about current events. The series started Monday and El Cabrero is not sure how long it will last, although I can safely say that it will be impermanent.

The form of Buddhism popularly known as Zen is often traced to a wandering Indian monk named Bodhidharma (from bodhi as in awakening and dharma as in teachings or simply the nature of things) who by tradition arrived at the famous Shaolin Temple in Henan China around the year 520. Zen, whatever else you can say about it (which is both a lot and nothing at all), is kind of based on direct experience and insight.

But legends (and that's all we've got) take the story back nearly 1000 years to the time of the historic Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. He was said to have once wordlessly held up a flower. Among the multitude who witnessed the event, only one person, Mahakasyapa, smiled and got the point. A direct line of "the transmission of the lamp" was established of which Bodhidharma was the 28th Patriarch, although he is also regarded as the First Patriarch of Chinese Zen or Chan.

The emphasis on direct insight remained a major characteristic of Zen. While its traditional practices included rituals, meditation and scriptures (called sutras), there was always a strong iconoclastic and irreverent streak with in aimed at jolting people out of conventional ruts.

According to tradition, if one asked a Zen master an earnest question, one might be thrown out of a window, smacked on the head, or given a bizarre, non-linear answer. Or he might just put his sandals on his head...

Bodhidharma set the gold standard for strange behaviour. About which more next week.

HOMELESSNESS is on the rise again. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recommends that housing vouchers and other measures should be included in economic recovery legislation.

PULLING OUT THE STOPS. Big business groups are going to spend big bucks to kill the Employee Free Choice Act. Here's hoping they waste their money.





January 08, 2009

Don't mess with monks

Painting from wall of Shaolin Temple. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Lately, Goat Rope has been musing on topics related to Buddhism. While El Cabrero is not a card-carrying Buddhist, that tradition has been a big influence on my life from early childhood.

As I mentioned in earlier posts, I grew up around some Buddhist artifacts thanks to some wandering grandparents and later became interested in fighting arts that trace themselves back to Bodhidharma, a legendary Indian monk said to have brought Chan or Zen Buddhism to China.

While there is probably no historical basis to claims that Bodhidharma himself taught anything like kung fu to the monks at Shaolin, there has long been an affinity between Buddhism and the fighting arts, which may seem strange to people familiar with the Buddhism's teachings about nonviolence an unfamiliar with the non-aggressive nature of traditional martial arts. What's up?

First, the Buddha himself came from the Kshatriya or warrior caste and probably excelled in the appropriate arts. His teachings about nonviolence sound more like one who has gone beyond it than one who was never capable of it to start with. It is also possible that Bodhidharma himself came from the same social group.

Second, both were probably steeped in yogic traditions, which combined physical exercises with breathing methods and mental discipline. Such practices are common in the martial arts as well.

Third, travel in those days was no picnic, especially going from India to China, whether the route was via the ocean or over the mountains. Even pacific travelers either had to be capable of protecting themselves or relied on those who could. And travel means influence between cultures and mutual learning.

Fourth, the monks at Shaolin in the years after Bodhidharma's alleged arrival did acquire a reputation as fierce fighters when the need arose, thus inspiring any number of Chinese movies.

Finally, Zen's emphasis on mental discipline has proven to be an asset to those who practice martial arts for either personal cultivation or more serious situations.

So here's to Bodhidharma, who is at least the patron saint, if not the founder, of those traditions.

UNEMPLOYMENT JUMPS AGAIN. If you thought the November numbers were bad, check out December's.

ON THAT NOTE, this snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute looks at how long a labor market recovery might take. Short version: too long unless something gets done.

ONE THING THAT WOULD HELP would be reforming unemployment benefits to cover part time workers, as this report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows.


January 07, 2009

The barbarian from the west

Bodhidharma, the monk who brought Zen Buddhism to China, from an 1887 woodblock by Yoshitoshi. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Although I'm not a card-carrying Buddhist, I've been a student of it for many years. As I mentioned in earlier posts this week, I was aware of the Buddha from early childhood, thanks to the artifacts of wandering grandparents. But it was another major figure from Buddhist history who had the most immediate impact on my life.

When I was a kid, like many boys, I was interesting in fighting--especially in exotic fighting arts from Asia. This was just before the big kung fu boom in the early 1970s. At the time, I could find no affordable place to study so I read everything I could get my hands on.

Many books about karate and kung fu (aka gung-fu, wushu, kuoshu, etc.) then and now relate a legend that says these arts were founded by a wandering monk who made the hazardous journey from India to China to promote a new Buddhist teaching (Zen in Japanese, Chan in Chinese, and dhyana in Sanskrit).

It was said that this monk (Bodhidharma in Sanskrit, Tamo in Chinese, Daruma in Japanese) arrived at the now famous Shaolin Temple and found the monks there to be too weak to progress in meditation. He was said to have taught them a series of exercises for health and self defense that would eventually become the basis for Shaolin kung fu and the many arts it influenced.

Now this story is more a matter of legend than fact but I did get something out of it at the time which was worth keeping: the idea that mind and body were essentially one and the same and that one can't develop one without the other.

Later, I went on to investigate the other, older legends about Bodhidharma which were entertaining and colorful in their own right. About which more tomorrow.

WEST VIRGINIA SUPREME JOKE. The ripples just keep getting wider and wider over the scandal involving WV Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin, Massey Energy, and its CEO Don Blankenship. All kinds of groups, including (Wal-Mart!) have weighed in saying that it looks tacky for a justice whose seat was purchased by a corporate pal to rule in favor of that corporation.

FEAR OF SUCCESS may be driving the anti-stimulus crowd, economist Dean Baker argues.

MYTHS OF DE-REGULATION. Regulation of some kind is going to happen--it's a question of who benefits.

IN PRAISE OF MELANCHOLY. Happiness is fine, but the blues have their place.


January 06, 2009


As noted in yesterday's post, traditional Buddhist teachings regard being born as a human as a rare and precious opportunity. Believe it or not, we could do way worse. Even more rare and precious is being born a human in a time and place where one can become aware of the Buddha's teaching or the Dharma.

By those standards at least, El Cabrero is pretty lucky. Although I was raised in and remain attached to the Episcopal Church, there was never a time in my life when I can remember not knowing who the Buddha was or at least what he looked like (according to traditional iconography anyhow).

My paternal grandfather spent many years in China, where my father and uncle were born. He wasn't a missionary, although he did become a priest when he returned. Though he died several years before I was born, the artifacts of his travels decorated the old family farm. Among these was a bronze statue of the Buddha and a prayer wheel. When my grandmother died, those were the only things I asked for.

When I was a child, while everyone at the old home place adhered to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the Buddha was always spoken of with deep respect, as were other elements of Chinese culture. I wound up being drawn to and equally comfortable with each. They are not identical, but I've found them to be complimentary and the tension between them to be interesting.

A wise old priest once told me that creative tensions were what made things like Gothic cathedrals work and that Christianity itself was the product of creative tensions between the Hebrew and Hellenistic traditions.

THE (GLOBAL) PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. A worldwide study of the subjective sense of well-being finds that it tends to be higher in places with less poverty, better health care and access to education. Who would have guessed?

A VERY UNMERRY BIRTHDAY. NAFTA turned 15 on Jan. 1. Ordinary folks on either side of the US-Mexico border weren't big winners.

CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER. From the Wall Street Journal, here is a brief description of some rare but interesting neurological disorders.



January 05, 2009

Lucky us (?)

Tibetan wheel of life and death, courtesy of wikipedia.

According to Buddhist teachings, I'm a pretty lucky guy. And if you're reading this, you probably are too, just by virtue of being human. Buddhists believe (metaphorically at least) that without attaining enlightenment, sentient beings are destined to cycle on and on in Samsara, the realm of birth and death.

Depending on karma, one can be reborn in any of six realms, which range from heavens to hells. All such states are impermanent, but some are more or less pleasant than others.

Believe it or not, being born as a human is one of the better gigs. It is believed to be the only one in which one can make progress towards waking up and escaping the endless cycle of coming into being and passing away. Those born in other realms are either too ignorant, miserable or blissed-out to make any headway.

According to some Buddhist teachings, human birth is really, really rare. As in imagine a blind tortoise at the bottom of the ocean that swims to the surface once every hundred years in an effort to put his neck in a wooden yoke floating on the surface. He's got a better chance of doing it than most beings have of being born as a human.

One doesn't have to take this literally to get the point that people do have a vast potential if they choose to develop it. Still, if we're the lucky ones, I'd hate to think what the other gigs are like...

ANOTHER NOD TO THE ODYSSEY. A few months back, there was an extended series here on the Odyssey of Homer and what it might have to say about the difficulties and dangers some combat veterans face on their homecoming. This item from the Jan. 2 New York Times is a case in point.

FROM HOMER TO VIRGIL. Speaking of the classics, in the Aeneid, Virgil speaks of the goddess Rumor (aka Fama or Ossa) as "nimble as quicksilver among evils." Here's a good AP article by the AP's Tom Breen on popular rumors and hoaxes of today.

HARD TIMES HAVE COME to the "bubble bourgeoisie."

STIMULUS. Will it be bold enough?

FUNERAL FOR A FRIEND. This weekend I attended a memorial service for William C. "Bill" Blizzard, who died in late December at the age of 92. He was the son of West Virginia labor legend Bill Blizzard, who led the historic miner's march of 1921. The march, which culminated in an armed struggle between union supporters and coal company thugs known as the Battle of Blair Mountain, was the largest workers' rebellion in American history.

An activist himself who paid the price more than once for his convictions, Blizzard was a writer and photographer and, as strange as it may sound these days, a gentleman and a scholar. In 2004, he published the result of years of research into the WV labor struggles in the book When Miners March. May light perpetual shine upon him.

My tribe diminishes...