Aug 012014

bangladeshcover43 years ago today, the famous Concert for Bangladesh was staged in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. It was actually two concerts, organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar (working with UNICEF) to raise relief funds for the refugees of Bangladesh, victims of the 1971 war between East and West Pakistan. The first benefit concert of its kind, it paved the way for the large benefit concerts of the 80s, Live Aid and Farm Aid. In addition to Harrison and Shankar, the shows featured Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and in only his second concert performance in five years, Bob Dylan.

In 1971 Bangladesh was a new country, forged out of The Bangladesh Liberation War. East Pakistan, as the country had previously been called, battled West Pakistan in a conflict that lasted nine months. It was one of the bloodiest chapters in human history, in which between two and four hundred thousand Bangladeshi women were assaulted in a campaign of genocidal rape conducted by the Pakistani military and Bengali militias, and nearly 30 million people were displaced, including 10 million refugees the majority of whom were Hindu.

Bangladesh today is one of the world’s most densely populated areas with about 150 million people. 90% are Muslim. It remains a place of unrest. Recent election days have been extremely violent. According United Nations reports, women are still oppressed and children abused, and poverty and hunger is so extreme that about half of the children in Bangladesh are underweight and malnourished.

The benefit continues, The Concert for Bangladesh is still a live event. The George Harrison Fund for UNICEF, a collaboration between the Harrison family and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF continues to support UNICEF programs in Bangladesh “while expanding its influence to include other countries where children are in need.” Sales of the live album and DVD release of the film continue to benefit the fund.

You can visit the site for the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF here, and the Concert for Bangladesh site where you can make a donation here.

The money we raised was secondary. The main thing was, we spread the word and helped get the war ended … What we did show was that musicians and people are more humane than politicians.

George Harrison, 1992

I look at you all see the love there that’s sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps

I don’t know why nobody told you
How to unfold your love . . .

Jul 272014

My cousin was 57 years old and lived with her husband in Northern California where they had raised three children, all adults now. Several years ago, she had breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. At that time, she appeared to be cancer free. Just a couple of months ago she had some tests done and again, it looked as though she was in the clear.

Over the Fourth of July weekend she emailed, writing that she was worried about how her stomach was swollen. She’d had a blood test and was going for a CT scan early the next week. It didn’t sound good to me. It sounded like ascites, where the abdomen becomes very swollen and distended. I’d seen that a lot at the liver clinic. People with ascites look like they are pregnant, and it is painful.

On Sunday, July 7, we talked on the phone. She was afraid the cancer had spread throughout her entire body. She cried. I didn’t say much. I just listened. Even though there was nearly 400 miles of distance between us, I tried to there for her, present in body and mind. I did remind her that fear was her worse enemy . . .

Cancer had spread through her body and ravaged it with a vengeance. Her kidney was more tumor than organ, I am told. She died this past Monday, July 21.

With cancer, you can never say never.

We corresponded via email frequently, sometimes as often as two or three times a week. Besides the bond of family, we had that special bond formed by our experience with the Big C. We both battled cancer and we also battled fear, and we would encourage one another to stay strong and fight the fight. In one of our last email exchanges, later the same day we talked on the phone, she wrote, “Fear sucks our life away.” I believe she understood that the greatest tragedy is not physical death but rather when a negative emotion like fear destroys what lives within us. I hope the realization helped her touch some peace in that final skirmish.

Sufferings and peace are both of the nature of the mind.
It is fortunate to have made the resolution to liberate oneself from sufferings
While understanding that all sufferings in the world and the peace called Nirvana are mingled into one,
Without having imperfect views and without taking the phenomenal world to be real.
It is fortunate to remember from one’s heart
Meditations on the transcendence of birth and death,
Knowing that what is born is of the nature of death
And not unchangeable as we imagine.

from Gyu-thog’s Hymn of Wisdom


Jul 252014

I’ve had problems concentrating recently, which is why blogging has been slow, intermittent. It is partly due to my recovery from major surgery and the medication they are giving me, and partly due to other matters that have been pressing on my somewhat compromised mind, such as the death of a dear family member.

Fear of death (thanatophobia) is a phobia shared by most people. Almost everyone is afraid of dying. Buddhism teaches that when we develop a deep understanding of the inevitability of death, we can overcome this fear and face death with courage.

Another aspect of fear of death is a reluctance to talk about death, or think about it. But the subject of death should be discussed and pondered, and I feel our reflection on death should lead us to an appreciation of life.

There are times when it is difficult for me to remember just how precious life is, times when I begrudge my life.

It is easy to lose track of what is important. The old adage about stopping to smell the roses is a good one, because as Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When we learn to stop and be truly alive in the present moment, we are in touch with what’s going on within and around us. We aren’t carried away by the past, the future, our thinking, ideas, emotions, and projects.”

Nor are we preoccupied with feeling sorry for ourselves, bemoaning our disappointments, and so on.

Life is not fair. Life is uncertain. Death is not fair. Death is uncertain, but inevitable. Every moment of life counts, every breath is precious . . .

There is only one important point you must keep in your mind and let it be your guide. No matter what people call you, you are just who you are. Keep to this truth. You must ask yourself how is it you want to live your life. We live and we die, this is the truth that we can only face alone. No one can help us, not even the Buddha. So consider carefully, what prevents you from living the way you want to live your life?”

- Dalai Lama XIV

Jul 212014

By all accounts, James Garner, who passed away Saturday at age 86, was a likeable guy, who excelled at playing likeable guys on the small and big screen. Many of the characters he played were interchangeable: wisecracking, sometimes glib, unsentimental, cynical. A number of them were cowards.

In one episode of the show that provided Garner with his initial fame, Bret Maverick said, “Bravery gets you nothing but hurt.” And Jim Rockford, Garner’s other big television role, was always a reluctant hero. But the biggest coward Garner ever played was in The Americanization of Emily. In that film, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Edward Madison makes no bones about it. He says, “I preach cowardice.”

Andrews as Emily

Andrews as Emily

Emily is one of my all-time favorite films. I saw it shortly after its release in 1964. In those days, we had what was known as the “double bill” or “double feature.” You got to see two movies for the price of one (plus a cartoon). I don’t remember what the main feature might have been that afternoon (as I recall it was an afternoon), but Emily stayed in my mind. For one thing, it caused me to fall in love with Julie Andrews. I had already seen her in Mary Poppins, where she was practically perfect in every way, but in this movie, she was sexy as hell.

Emily was memorable for another reason . . . in 1964, I still had an idealistic view about war, I doubt I knew much about what was happening in Vietnam at that time, and I certainly had not read anything in-depth about Gandhi or learned the word ahisma yet, but Charlie Madison’s “cowardice” resonated, striking a pacifist chord that must have already existed within my 12-year-old soul.

Based on William Bradford Huie’s 1959 novel of the same name, written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Arthur Hiller, the film is essentially a satire on war, but it’s also about life, love, bravery, Hersey Bars and Coca-cola. Garner’s character, like Henley in The Great Escape, is a “scrounger,” and aide-de- camp for an admiral stationed in London. It’s just before D-Day and Charlie has things pretty good, living it up in his cushy job until he’s handed a dangerous assignment (photographing the first dead man on Omaha Beach) and falls in love with Emily, a British war widow.

This brief exchange conveys the two character’s outlooks on life:

Emily Barham: I believe in honor, service, courage, and fair play, and cricket, and all the other symbols of British character. Which have only civilized half the world!

Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Madison: You British plundered half the world for your own profit, let’s not pass it off as the age of enlightenment.

Chayefsky’s script captures the growing anti-war feeling, which in ’64 was actually little more than an undercurrent on college campuses across the U.S. Chayefsky later wrote Network, another cynical film, and it is his cynicism here that gave Emily its cutting edge. I don’t know, but I suspect that Chayefsky found the peacenik sentiment of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with its “Oh when will they ever learn?” refrain a bit trite. Waiting in the wings was flower power and the Summer of Love and it would be quite a while before we learned that they will never learn.

Which begs the question, is Charlie a craven coward, or that another word for a pacifist, a hero who sees the absurdity of war and refuses to participate in it. Charlie sums up his philosophy with these remarks to Emily’s mother:

We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on the ministers and generals, or warmongering imperialists, or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio…Yes. An everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud…Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September…Maybe ministers and generals blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution . . .”

You will have to watch the film yourself to see how Charlie’s views on war play out, and filmed in glorious black and white, it is a film well worth seeing . . . more than once. By the time Garner made it, he was in a position to pick and choose the parts he played, so I have to believe that he shared this cynicism toward the virtues of war, even though he was a true hero in the classic sense, receiving two Purple Hearts in the Korean War.

moe2I’ll always be in love with Julie Andrews, and I will always have a fond regard for James Garner, a likable guy who played likeable guys so well that he seemed like a friend and it’s sad he’s no longer here.

And I think I shall always be a coward.

Jul 172014

One of the benefits of having a blog is that you can use it to introduce your readers to interesting people whom they might not have known about previously. Today it is Berenice Abbott, an American photographer best known for her black-and-white photography, born on July 17, 1898. She learned photography from Man Ray in Paris during the 1920s, returned to American to become the photographer of New York City according to some folks,and taught at the New School for Social Research for over 20 years. She died at the age of 93 in 1991.

Read more about this strong-willed, independent, pioneer of modern photography here, while this site claims to be the official Berenice Abbott archive.

Does not the very word ‘creative’ mean to build, to initiate, to give out, to act – rather than to be acted upon, to be subjective? Living photography is positive in its approach, it sings a song of life – not death.”

- Berenice Abbott

Whether it is a photograph or on film, I’m a sucker for black and white. For certain subjects, the stark images are more compelling, and without the color to distract, it is easier to concentrate on the image. Orson Welles once called B&W “the actor’s best friend” because he felt actors gave better performances in black and white, for it allowed more focus on the actor’s expressions as he or she emoted.

Today, several of Berenice Abbott’s most notable photos:

Penn Station, Interior, Manhattan - 1935

Penn Station, Interior, Manhattan – 1935

Brooklyn Bridge 1933

Brooklyn Bridge 1933

Children at a fair 1967

Children at a fair 1967

Jean Cocteau with a gun 1926

Jean Cocteau with a gun 1926

Jul 122014

Sufferings are nirvana is what the Heart Sutra means when it says, “Within emptiness there is . . . no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering . . .”

The Heart Sutra is emptiness from the Bodhisattva point of view. At times, I think it is easier to see things from the point of view of Buddha, for it is relatively undemanding to learn emptiness as the oneness of all beings. The Bodhisattva view is harder because you must grasp emptiness in terms of the liberation of all beings.

In the phrase sufferings are nirvana, “sufferings” stands for this world we live in, or samsara, the world of suffering. We all know that it is impossible to go through life without the experience of suffering, so Buddha’s first teaching was “Life is suffering.” What he meant was “Life is peace, nirvana.”

Mu Soeng, in his book on the Diamond Sutra*, writes,

[Although] the bodhisattva chooses to stay in samsara, she or he is not seduced by the things of samsara and thus dwell in nirvana, free from any kind of clinging.”

Clinging is a root cause of suffering; it can be clinging to the false sense of self, clinging to the relative as absolute, or clinging to sense-pleasures or possessions. Sometimes we can cling to suffering and see nothing but suffering.

By practicing non-clinging a bodhisattva cultivates the transcendent wisdom (prajna-paramita) that brings to light the universal emptiness and enables all beings to realize the kind of liberation in which all things are nirvana.

- – - – - – - – - -

* Mu Soeng, The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Wisdom Publications, 2011, 110

Jul 092014

As I’ve noted previously on The Endless Further, extremists in Burma and Sri Lanka are misusing Buddhism to promote religious hatred and violence. In Burma (Myanmar) violence has left more than 200 dead and close to 150,000 homeless since persecution against the Rohingya Muslim minority began in the western state of Rakhine in June 2012. Human rights groups maintain that extremist Buddhist monks have helped incite violence and participated in rioting mobs. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist mobs have attacked Muslim neighborhoods – four people were killed in a clash between Buddhists and Muslims last month – unrest incited by the far-right Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) group.

Dalai-LamaXX444b3Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who turned 79 this past Sunday, July 6th, used the occasion of his birthday to call on Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to halt violence against Muslim minorities. In front of a large crowd gathered on the outskirts of Leh, a town high in the Himalayas, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader said,

I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime.

Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

These simple but powerful words need no further explication . . .

But I would like to point out once again that for too long, far too many Buddhists around the world have remained silent on this issue, and this is especially the case with well-known Buddhist leaders whose words influence many people.  About this matter, silence is not skillful means, but rather a tool of complicity.

Jul 072014

It has been quite a while since we took a stroll through the Chinese garden . . . the garden I refer to is actually a book, “Epigrams from the Ming Dynasty ‘Discourses on Vegetable Roots’” by Tzu-Ch’eng (1572-1620). It was translated by Chao Tze-chiang and published in 1959 as A Chinese Garden of Serenity, Reflections of a Zen Buddhist.

Not only is it a garden of serenity, it’s also a garden of wisdom . . .

751b2Looking at the busy bees in a fragrant and luxuriant garden, one may become disillusioned about the life of the senses and the ways of the world. Beholding the sleeping swallows in a quiet and humble hovel, one may arouse in oneself a cool pleasure and a deep contemplation.

When a bird is frightened out of its wits or a flower splashes its tear-drops, they both embrace ardor and zeal. How can they calmly appreciate the chilly wind or the gelid moon?

When a man has realized the essential nature of his mind, he can speak of enlightening his mind. And when he has exhausted the ordinary ways of the world, he is able to discourse on his seclusion from the world.

Those who prefer quietude to noise retreat from people into solitude, but they do not know that to be alone is a self-obsession and to aim at quiescence is the root of action.

A taste derived from tranquility and ease is dilute, but lasts longer.

IMG_2623bLife’s fortunes and misfortunes are caused entirely by the mind. Shakyamuni [The Buddha] said, “A burning desire for gain is a pit of fire, and an indulgence in greed is a sea of suffering. Once our mind is purified, a flame is turned into a pool; and once our mind awakens us from a dream of worldliness, our ship of life is anchored along the shore of the Great Beyond.” Hence, a slight change of the mind can suddenly make a different situation. Should we not be careful?

Previous walks in the garden of serenity are here, here, and here.

Jul 012014

Click to enlarge

To the right is a poster I made based on a famous quote from a work attributed to Hui Neng (638-713) also known as The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch.

The idea that all beings could realize awakening, or become enlightened, originated with Indian Buddhism, but “Buddha-nature” seems to have its origins in China with the term fo xing: fo is buddha; xing may refer to dhatu or realm, although some scholars feel there is no Sanskrit equivalent for the word.

In Hui Neng’s view of Buddha-nature, the original state of all beings is one that is fundamentally pure, but delusions have obscured this nature so that we are not aware of its presence.  This is more or less consistent with the general Mahayana understanding.

But not all Buddhist schools accept the idea of Buddha-nature. A case in point is the Theravada tradition, who consider themselves the original school and therefore “true” Buddhism. A Theravada monk once told me he had difficulty with equating Buddha with ordinary people. In Theravada, Buddha is idealized to represent Perfection, and is seen as a supramundane being having omniscience and magical powers. Followers of Theravada deny they’ve elevated Buddha to a god-like status, but clearly their Buddha is not a ordinary person.

Personally, I have no use for that kind of Buddha. I am not interested in following beings who are perfect, who are saints, gods, divine messengers, etc. I can never become a Perfect Buddha, or God or Jesus. I’m certainly no saint. I know the historical Buddha did not walk around with his head wrapped in a halo as he is depicted in paintings, nor did he posses elongated ears, or possess magical powers. He was a common mortal, like me, like you.  That’s what makes the story of the Buddha so magnificent, because what he achieved, we can achieve as well.

Actually, the idea of Buddha-nature evolved in part from the rather complex teachings on the somewhat less than ordinary three bodies of the Buddha (Trikaya). I will save discussion on that topic for some other time.  The main thing to keep in mind that such teachings are metaphor and not to be taken literally.  The old Zen saying attributed to Lin Chi, “If you meet the Buddha on the path, kill him” seems apropos here.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki expressed it more politely while talking about the custom of bowing to statues of Buddha:

[When] you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”

If we see Buddha as someone or something above us, then we are seeking enlightenment outside of ourselves.  We need to look inwardly, for that is where our Buddha-nature is sleeping.  Buddha is our guide and we rely on his teachings for sustenance on the path, but ultimately we have to “kill” the idea of Buddha as anything other than our own life, our own mind. We have to give it up.

Dogen, in his work Bussho (“Buddha Nature”) wrote,

What we have been calling ‘Buddha Nature’ is not to be equated with ‘the saintly’, nor, indeed, is it to be equated with Buddha Nature Itself.”

But in the same work he also said,

There is no Buddha Nature which is not Buddha Nature manifesting right here and now.”

I can’t think of any more positive teaching that this, that all beings without exception possess this nature, a state of mind that is always accessible, that we can manifest at any time.  Now, I don’t believe in enlightenment with a big E, you know, an earth-shattering, sudden illumination coming out of nowhere kind of thing, rather I believe we get glimpses of enlightenment, or perhaps like a flower unfolding to the sun slowly over the course of a morning, we awaken gradually, we blossom petal by petal . . . and so, moment by moment, day by day, we can awaken our Buddha. We can manifest more and more wisdom as time goes on, and even though we may not see instantaneous results before our eyes, that’s all right. I feel that real enlightenment happens subtly, in-perceptively . . .

But who knows, maybe there is a Big E, maybe there are those who experience Sudden Enlightenment . . . Not being enlightened, I’m not really sure . . . I just know that those who are enlightened don’t go around talking about it, but that is another subject . . .

For today, for me, it is quite enough to be content with the knowledge that “our very nature is Buddha and apart from that nature there is no other Buddha,” and equally as important, there is no other purpose of Buddhism than to enable all beings to realize their Buddha-nature.

Jun 262014

Lafcadio Hearn, born June 27, 1850, was an Irish-Greek author, translator, and teacher most famous for his writings about Japan.

Hearn with wife, Koizumi Setsu

Hearn with wife, Koizumi Setsu

He was born on Lefkada, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, and educated in Ireland, England, and France before immigrating to the United States in 1869. For a decade he lived in New Orleans, reporting on street life in the Vieux Carre and Creole and Cajun culture. In 1890 Hearn moved to Japan, where he took the name Koizumi Yakumo, became a citizen, married into a samurai family, held a chair in English literature at Tokyo University, and authored over a dozen books on Japanese life, literature and religion.

In 1897 he published Gleanings in Buddha-Fields Studies of Hand and Soul in the Far East, a collection of sketches on Japanese Buddhism. In his introduction to The Buddhist Writings of Lafcadio Hearn (1977), Kenneth Rexroth wrote,

Hearn’s role in the spread of Buddhism to the West was a preparatory one. He was the first important American writer to live in Japan and to commit his imagination and considerable literary powers to what he found there. Like the “popular” expressions of Buddhist faith that were his favorite subject, Hearn popularized the Buddhist way of life for his Western readers.”

Hearn had lost faith in his native religion before he reached the age of 20. He did not convert to Buddhism, however, and as Rexroth mentions, “he remained skeptical about certain of Buddhism’s key doctrines — such as the relationship of karma and rebirth — but he passionately believed that Buddhism promoted a far better attitude toward daily life than did Christianity.” And he wrote about the Buddhism of the masses, popular Buddhism, not what he termed “Higher Buddhism,” although he probably felt more comfortable with this latter form of dharma, which he thought comparable in certain respects to the “evolutional ideas of our own time.”

In honor of the 164th anniversary of his birth, here is a excerpt from the chapter “Dust” in Gleanings in Buddha-Fields. In this lyrical selection, Hearn muses over death and emptiness:

Let the Bodhisattva look upon all things as having the nature of space,—as permanently equal to space; without essence, without substantiality.”—SADDHARIMA-PUNDARÎKA.

hearn1897I have wandered to the verge of the town; and the street I followed has roughened into a country road, and begins to curve away through rice-fields toward a hamlet at the foot of the hills. Between town and rice-fields a vague unoccupied stretch of land makes a favorite playground for children . . .

And they play at funerals,—burying corpses of butterflies and semi (cicadæ), and pretending to repeat Buddhist sutras over the grave . . .

Children in all countries play at death. Before the sense of personal identity comes, death cannot be seriously considered; and childhood thinks in this regard more correctly, perhaps, than self-conscious maturity. Of course, if these little ones were told, some bright morning, that a playfellow had gone away forever,—gone away to be reborn elsewhere,—there would be a very real though vague sense of loss, and much wiping of eyes with many-colored sleeves; but presently the loss would be forgotten and the playing resumed. The idea of ceasing to exist could not possibly enter a child-mind: the butterflies and birds, the flowers, the foliage, the sweet summer itself, only play at dying;—they seem to go, but they all come back again after the snow is gone. The real sorrow and fear of death arise in us only through slow accumulation of experience with doubt and pain; and these little boys and girls, being Japanese and Buddhists, will never, in any event, feel about death just as you or I do. They will find reason to fear it for somebody else’s sake, but not for their own, because they will learn that they have died millions of times already, and have forgotten the trouble of it, much as one forgets the pain of successive toothaches. In the strangely penetrant light of their creed, teaching the ghostliness of all substance, granite or gossamer,—just as those lately found X-rays make visible the ghostliness of flesh,—this their present world, with its bigger mountains and rivers and rice-fields, will not appear to them much more real than the mud landscapes which they made in childhood. And much more real it probably is not.

At which thought I am conscious of a sudden soft shock, a familiar shock, and know myself seized by the idea of Substance as Non-Reality.

This sense of the voidness of things comes only when the temperature of the air is so equably related to the temperature of life that I can forget having a body. Cold compels painful notions of solidity; cold sharpens the delusion of personality; cold quickens egotism; cold numbs thought, and shrivels up the little wings of dreams.

To-day is one of those warm, hushed days when it is possible to think of things as they are,—when ocean, peak, and plain seem no more real than the arching of blue emptiness above them. All is mirage,—my physical self, and the sunlit road, and the slow rippling of the grain under a sleepy wind, and the thatched roofs beyond the haze of the rice-fields, and the blue crumpling of the naked hills behind everything. I have the double sensation of being myself a ghost and of being haunted,—haunted by the prodigious luminous Spectre of the World.

There are men and women working in those fields. Colored moving shadows they are; and the earth under them—out of which they rose, and back to which they will go -is equally shadow. Only the Forces behind the shadow, that make and unmake, are real,—therefore viewless . . .

Read all of Gleaning in Buddha-Fields here.