Archive for October, 2012

This Creepy Election

October 31, 2012

I haven’t been writing about the election. I find the level of debate extraordinarily discouraging, which reflects, I think, a certain naïveté on my part. For years, I’ve been watching the intelligence of the American people go downhill. What’s there to be shocked about? When you have this kind of worship of celebrity and wealth—classic decadent empire—it’s to be expected.  Self-government requires intelligence and engagement. We’re facing some extremely serious issues, none of which are being addressed. One example is human-caused climate change, which most scientists seem to agree does exist. Not to discuss it is crazy and dangerous. But neither candidate dares to touch it. Another example is the economy. It’s discussed, but not the real underlying problem. The truth is that we’re seeing the end of a fantasy belief, that of constant economic growth for generation after generation. It was always a logical fallacy, an utter impossibility. Neither candidate can save the economy—at least not the old-style economy that we’re used to. We’re entering a new era and we need to start looking at it realistically. Does Obama need to lose so that Romney can demonstrate that the Republicans’ ideas won’t work either? I have little doubt that if either candidate told the truth about what’s really going on, the people—who claim to want their politicians to tell them the truth—would turn on him. So democracy—self-government—is failing in America. If it were working it wouldn’t matter how much money any particular candidate raised. People would have seriously studied the issues and would judge a candidate on the clarity and truth of his or her ideas, not on their ad campaigns. Money would be irrelevant. I blame much of our current state on computers and the Internet. We have not gotten any smarter since their introduction. To the contrary. (I’ll be writing more about this in the future.)

In any case, I’ve already voted, and I voted for Obama. I have to wonder if the worst happens and Romney does win, will the Republicans, given the last four years, be so hypocritical as to demand national unity? I’m sure they will. All the old insanity, all the old lines like “why do you hate America?,” and talk of non-Republicans being treasonous will once again tiresomely fill the air. Our only solution is to step back and take a non-ideological, objective-as-possible look at who we are and what we believe. What we believe must correspond to what is true, not what we’d like to be true. We can still do it. It may take another economic crash and a few more monster storms, but we can still do it. It’s not too late.

Poem #87 from Cold Mountain (Han Shan)

October 28, 2012

A greedy man who piles up wealth

is like an owl who loves her chicks

the chicks grow up and eat their mother

wealth eventually swallows its owner

spread it around and blessings grow

hoard it and disaster arises

no wealth no disaster

flap your wings in the blue

Translation by Red Pine

Spiritual Books I Recommend

October 19, 2012

A reader, Lynn B., asked me to post a list of spiritual books that I recommend. In the last decade or two a lot of the really valuable works have been obscured by new translations of the classics as well as newly written books, both with the “modern-day seeker” in mind. In short, they’re New Age, and from what I’ve seen, most of them are useless. What follows are the books that I’ve actually read and value most. There are certainly many others worth reading; but these are the ones I actually know:

Tao Te Ching: The fundamental text of Taoism. There are many, many translations. I have two favorites. One is the version by Richard Wilhelm and the other—my current favorite—is by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo. The original work is extremely terse. Most English translations have a lot of added verbiage in order to help the Western reader better understand the ideas. The Addis/Lombardo version retains the simplicity of the original text. Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with the lengthier translations, but I find this book clearer and easier to understand than any other version. It’s also more enjoyable.

I Ching: In some sense a Taoist text with heavy Confucian influences, the I Ching is really its own thing, that is, it has its own tradition. This is the book I know best. I’ve been studying it for nearly 40 years. To my mind, the only translation worth getting is the Wilhelm/Baynes version. One note of caution: A lot of people approach the I Ching with the hope that it will help them get what they want. It doesn’t do that. The I Ching is a book of wisdom. It’s a good idea to treat the oracular aspect with much caution.

Cold Mountain Poems: Han Shan (or Cold Mountain) was a Chinese religious hermit who wrote poems on the rock walls around his cave, 300 of which were collected after he disappeared. He spoke the language of both the Taoists and the Buddhists. I love this book. He can be very funny! My favorite version is by Red Pine.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind; Not Always So; Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Three books by the Japanese Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki. I love these. They are tidied-up versions of talks he gave and are especially useful because he knew that the people he was talking to were new to the subject. This doesn’t mean that they’re easy to understand. They’re not. It took me many years to even begin to understand any of Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. But they speak to a level that most Westerners can attain if we try.

Crooked Cucumber: This biography of Shunryu Suzuki, or Suzuki Roshi, was written by David Chadwick, a former student. It’s a wonderful book—humorous and well-written—and I recommend it highly.

Monday Night Class, The Caravan, and Amazing Dope Tales (aka Haight Ashbury Flashbacks): Stephen Gaskin was one of the hippies who, back in the 1960s, used LSD as a tool for spiritual exploration. He helped to develop the groundwork for what might be called Acid Religion, which is virtually identical to Taoism, Buddhism and true Christianity. (I’m not sure that “virtually” is actually necessary. But I’ll let it stand.) I like all of Gaskin’s books, but only a few of them are available today. Monday Night Class and The Caravan are currently out in annotated versions (done by him). He’s one of us and he’s talking to us.

The Gospel of Thomas: One of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, this is the only Christian text I bother with nowadays. One reason I like it is that it lacks the usual Christian mythologizing. It consists solely of the sayings of Jesus, many of which don’t exist in the standard Bible. It presents a Jesus who speaks with the voice of a sage. I only have the version by Marvin Meyer (The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus). For all I know, there may be better versions. But this one seems fine.

Finally, three books  I haven’t yet gotten into deeply, but know that I will get into deeply in the future: The Diamond Sutra, The Platform Sutra, and The Heart Sutra. Red Pine has done translations of all three. I don’t speak or read Chinese, so I can’t say how good he is at that level. But I like his work. He studied for years in a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. I’ve never read any negative comments about him.

The Leap of Faith

October 15, 2012

Sunday I was reading the news and came upon a link to watch the live video feed of the skydive from 24 miles up by Felix Baumgartner. I’m generally negative toward this kind of event, seeing it as little more than kitschy spectacle. The silly “mission control” set reinforced my feeling. Nevertheless, I got pulled in and I stayed to watch. I realize that the man had put a lot into this effort and was risking his life. But if he’d died, I believe that it would have been for nothing. I respected him for admitting his fear afterward. I could hear it in his voice on the way up. He said that it was much more difficult than he’d expected.

The one moment that really grabbed me was the one in which he jumped. Later, I was thinking of the image: a man standing against the backdrop of the cosmos and taking a great leap. As I’ve come to understand it, it describes what the sage does when he seeks enlightenment: He climbs as high as he can with his reason until there comes the moment that his thought won’t take him any higher. Then he has to let go of everything and take a great leap into the unknown. This is what Buddha, Christ, Lao Tzu, and all the other true sages accomplished. One big difference between Baumgartner’s leap and the leap of the sage is that the sage can’t get into position to make the leap unless he or she is willing to do it for all of humanity. It’s not a personal show or the act of a daredevil.

I think that ultimately we all have to take that same leap at the moment we die. Reading the spiritual books, it becomes apparent that, for some reason, it’s regarded as a noble thing to do before one’s actual death. Few ever consider attempting it, though—especially in this era of materialism.

The Road to Heaven

October 10, 2012

While my primary interest is spiritual, I don’t consider myself part of any particular religion. I always say, “There is only one true religion and it doesn’t have a name.” There are religious traditions, however, that grow out of a time and place where people tried to connect with the one true, nameless religion, and those efforts have names: Taoism, Buddhism and so on. Most of my own study has grown out of the tradition known as Taoism.

I’m reading a book called Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by Bill Porter, also known as Red Pine. China has an ancient tradition of religious seekers going off to the mountains to live solitary lives. Porter is fluent in Chinese and in the 1990s he went to mainland China to see if there were still religious hermits living in the mountains. At one point he meets the abbot of a Taoist monastery who lived briefly as a hermit. I am particularly interested in the Abbot’s response to these two questions.

Porter: Do you have problems in teaching people Taoism nowadays?

Abbot:  To find people who truly believe is the biggest problem we have. Taoism teaches us to reduce our desires and to lead quiet lives. People willing to reduce their desires or cultivate tranquility in this modern age are very few. This is the age of desire. Also, people learn much more slowly now. Their minds aren’t as simple. They’re too complicated.

Porter: What’s the goal of Taoist practice?

Abbot: Man’s nature is the same as the nature of heaven. Heaven gives birth to all creatures, and they all go different directions. But sooner or later they return to the same place. The goal of this universe, its highest goal, is nothingness. Nothingness means return. Nothingness is the body of the Tao. Not only man, but plants and animals and all living things are part of this body, are made of this body, this body of nothingness. Everything is one with nothingness. There aren’t two things in this universe. To realize this is the goal not only of Taoism but also of Buddhism. Everything in this world changes. Taoists and Buddhists seek that which doesn’t change. This is why they don’t seek fame or fortune. They seek only the Tao, which is the nothingness of which we are all created and to which we all return. Our goal is to be one with his natural process.

Last Night’s Dream

October 6, 2012

Judy and I were at a convention of the nation’s top environmentalists. We were all in one big room. Before the meeting started, one of us went out in the hallway and discovered a troop of about ten poor whites, “trailer trash” types, who had been sent to kill us. None of them was holding a weapon at the moment—they’d laid them down while discussing how to do the job—so the guy who found them was able to round them up and march them into the big room. They were a mix of men and women, mostly men, and they all looked malnourished and poverty-stricken. Each one was carrying a copy of a letter that had been written in 1978 by the CEO of a major corporation. He’d originally sent it to one of the environmentalists present, threatening him with death for having stopped his company’s production of DDT. The CEO was finally making good on his 34-year-old threat, except that now he wanted to do away with all of us. Judy and I were chosen to read the letter out loud to the assembly. The letter was so badly written, though—incomplete sentences, mangled syntax—that we had to keep asking each other what the poor fellow seemed to be trying to say.