Sep 172014

The 9th chapter, “Transcendent Wisdom,” in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life that I referenced in my Sept. 8th post, begins with these words:

Wisdom is the only true final antidote to all suffering (the whole path aims at this).”

The Sanskrit word for wisdom is prajna, which is syllabified as praj, meaning “higher,” and na or “consciousness.” But higher consciousness should not be taken to mean that wisdom some sort of mystical state. It is more like the difference between viewing a landscape from the ground or atop a mountain. The higher one’s vantage point then the more one is able to see.

Dharmic wisdom has many shades and hues. Wisdom obtained by study is what the sutras call “literary prajna.” Prajna-paramita, or Transcendent Wisdom, is the coupling of compassion with emptiness-knowledge. Prajna-Dhyana is the non-duality of wisdom and meditation. But none of these constitute the highest form of wisdom.

“The Way is your everyday mind,” is a saying attributed to Huang Po, a Ch’an master during the Tang Dynasty. He means there is no wisdom that is detached from daily life.

You can go off in search of higher states of consciousness, but the state of mind that is most important is the one rooted in the everyday world. Through understanding daily life, we can understand the whole of life.

I don’t know how many of you readers consider yourself Buddhists. It’s not important. Being a Buddhist is nothing special in the long run. It’s just being an ordinary person. Doing ordinary things. However, because most Buddhist engage in some sort of meditative practice, ordinary things are done with a bit more awareness, and one hopes, tranquility.

The ancient Ch’an/Zen tradition seemed to understand this very well. There’s old story from the school that illustrates the point, with the usual dash of paradox, of course:

Someone asked the Zen master three questions, What is Buddha? What is Dharma? What is Sangha? And the master answered each question with the same words, “Go and drink tea.”

In other words, you practice, and you do your daily life. That’s wisdom. That’s true Buddhism.

Sep 162014

In 2011, the Chinese government enacted a law that prohibited Tibetan lamas or monks from reincarnating without government approval. The Chinese government wants to have the right to approve reincarnations of living Buddhas or senior religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Let’s for a moment forget the ridiculousness to trying to approve who may or may not reincarnate themselves, and focus instead on the high probability that this was merely a ploy to allow the Chinese to chose the next Dalai Lama, someone they could control.

Only problem is that if you understand Tibetan Buddhism then you know a Dalai Lama cannot be chosen, only found. That’s because the next Dalai Lama is supposed to be a reincarnation of the previous one. High Lamas and Tibetan governmental officials have to search for this person. Sometimes it takes a while. Took them four years to find the current Dalai Lama.

Some Chinese officials claim this young girl is the next Dolly Lama.

Some Chinese officials claim this young girl is the next Dolly Lama.

So, back in 2011, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, said that when he reached the age of ninety, he would decide for himself whether to reincarnate or not.  In the meantime, last year he suggested that it might be a good idea for his successor to be a woman, remarking,

Biologically, females have more potential . . . females have more sensitivity about others’ well being. If the circumstances are such that a female Dalai Lama is more useful, then automatically a female Dalai Lama will come.”

Just recently, Tenzin Gyatso told a German newspaper he is actually doubtful about the need for successor:

We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.”

I suspect he might have had some tongue in cheek there about his popularity, but it’s true, and there may be a specific reason for this pronouncement. Commenting on the situation, Robert Thurman, Executive Director of Tibet House US, who is close to the Dalai Lama, indicated that by rejecting the need for a successor Tenzin Gyatso hoped to pave the way for a more democratic Tibet.

Now, the Chinese government, which doesn’t respect Tibetan Buddhist tradition enough to recognize that a Dalai Lama can’t be chosen, is accusing the current Dalai Lama of not respecting the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In a statement to the press, Chinese government spokesperson Hua Chunying said:

China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, and this naturally includes having to respect and protect the ways of passing on Tibetan Buddhism. The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The (present) 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.”

Hmm. I wonder.  If China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, then why is it being accused of persecuting the country’s Christian community by demolishing churches, tearing down crosses, and kidnapping bishops, and of course, why does it continue to interfere with Tibetan Buddhism?

The bottom line here is that if the Chinese government has its way, the Dalai Lama will reincarnate whether he wants to or not.

Sad, and rather silly. Technically, you know, reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept. See this post from 2010 that explains.

Yes, the whole reincarnation business between Tibet and China is a lot of silliness. But this is something we should take seriously, for Stephen Colbert says he has the solution.



Sep 132014

Today I would like to do something I haven’t done in a while and that is to thank all the people who read and support this blog. I really appreciate all of you who have left comments here, contacted me privately, who have “liked” The Endless Further’s Facebook page, and so on. I continue to be amazed that anyone reads this thing.

I’ve worked the blog for nearly five years now, and the best part of this experience has been the friends I’ve made. The blog has put me in touch with some wonderful, interesting people I would have never met otherwise, and not just here in the United States, but throughout the world.

There are times when words are unneeded, excessive. The Buddha is thought to be one person who understood that very well. Most of you are probably familiar with the story of the Buddha’s Flower Talk. One day the Buddha was sitting with the bhikkhus on Vulture Peak. They expected the Buddha to give a dharma talk. Instead of speaking, he simply held up a flower. No one understood except for a bhikkhu named Mahakasyapa, who smiled.

One of the earliest records of a transmission between the Buddha and Mahakasyapa appears in The Transmission of the Lamp, a Ch’an text composed in the 11th century CE. The transmission was called “the pure Dharma eye, the wondrous mind of nirvana.” However, this account does not mention a flower or a smile. That was embroidered into the story later. In Japanese Buddhism, this story is known as nengemisho or “pick up flower, subtle smile.”

I am not likening myself to the Buddha, as a transmitter of wisdom, I am merely saying that today it would be superfluous to say anything more than thank you . . .


 Posted by at 1:02 pm
Sep 102014

Bruce Springsteen’s song “Empty Sky” is how I remember that day, how it looked that morning. Here in Los Angeles, the sun was bright and ths sky had not a cloud, it was Spanish blue.

I worked sales for a greeting card company. I usually went in between 6 and 6:30am. That’d be 9 o’clock on the east coast. I called a customer at a Hallmark store in New York City about a re-order. “We’re under attack!” he shouted into the phone. “America is under attack!” Well, that’s fine, Gus, but what about those cards? He hung up. We were under attack, yeah, right. I went into the main office where some of the other early birds were gathered around the television and I watched one of the towers fall.

It’s been 11 years, and since that morning it has been America on the attack. Wednesday night, the man who in 2007 got himself elected President of the United States with words like these, “It is time to bring our troops home! It is time to realize there is no military solution to the problem of Iraq! It is time to turn the page!” went on TV to speak to the nation. He told us we are still at war. I sort of get the feeling we will be at war . . . forever.

us-soldier-iraq2bJust as soon as the troops come home, out they go again. Only 475, but that is just the beginning. Like Yogi Berra said, déjà vu all over again.

Speaking of the New York Yankees, I’ve been watching a lot of my favorite team this summer. The other day I was trying to remember what song they used to play in the 7th inning stretch back in the good old days before 9/11. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” usually. Now it’s a salute to the troops and Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” Woody Guthrie hated that song. His prejudice rubbed off on me. I hate that song and I hate Kate Smith’s voice. She reminds me of Ethel Merman. I hated Ethel Merman. Well, hate is a harsh word. Strongly disliked.

But I really hate war. The thought of war blows my mind. I hate that we are still at war. I am not terribly fond of this ISIL group, but I think the mistakes of the last 11 years should have taught us there is no military solution to the problem in Iraq. Didn’t someone else say that?

Because so many of the Buddha’s teachings can be summarized with the word “peace” (santi), he is often called the “king of peace” (santiraja). Once, during a period of drought, his relatives argued over water rights to the Rohini River. They spit into two factions and were ready to go to war. The Buddha intervened. He asked each side what was more important to them, water or their blood? He was able to convince them of the futility of war.

The Sunni and the Shiite are related. They are brothers and sisters in the same faith. Can they ever be convinced of the futility of war? Of bloodshed? Can anyone in the Middle East, be they Muslim, Israeli or Christian be convinced? It will take a Buddha-like or Gandhian figure to bring them together. I don’t see one on the horizon, do you?

I am not against the President’s strategy. I mean, I guess I’m not. I don’t have a better one. It’s just that war is something I despise. And I am not against the troops. I am weary of the necessity of supporting them.

Tuesday was the 185th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s birth. I know it’s a joke from Seinfeld, but the title of his epic novel “War and Peace” really should have been “War, What Is It Good For?”

Sep 082014

Normally, school breaks are 2-3 weeks at the most, except for the summer break, which when I was growing up was a glorious full 3 months. Some breaks coincide with holidays, like Christmas and Easter, the latter famous as “Spring Break” in the U.S. Today’s post concerns a school break that lasted 800 years, but it wasn’t a planned break and there was no holiday involved, more like a holocaust.

Nalanda ruins

Nalanda ruins

Nalanda University was an ancient center of learning near Bihar in India, thought to have been in operation from the fifth century CE until 1193 when the army of Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkic Muslim, laid siege to the place and destroyed it.

Last week, after a lengthy break of some 8 centuries, Nalanda began a new academic session, albeit with a mere 15 students, but nonetheless, like a phoenix this legendary institution is slowly but surely rising from the ashes.

The school has a website and the newly established campus at Rajgir is the result of an effort by the Government of India, which formed a Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG) in 2007 under the Chairmanship of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen charged with the task of reviving the school. The project was not without some controversy. Earlier this year Sen threatened to resign after the Indian finance ministry raised questions about the project’s financial management. And as I reported in 2011, Sen excluded Tibetan Buddhists and the Dalai Lama from being part of the project. The reason for the exclusion was a case of giving in to Chinese pressure. As we all know, the Chinese authorities have an abnormal obsession about the Dalai Lama.

Nalanda was founded sometime in the 5th century during the Gupta Dynasty, an ancient Indian empire noted for establishing peace and prosperity throughout its domain as well as promoting math, science, medicine, arts and literature among its people. Nalanda was not really a university but rather a Buddhist monastic center. However, it’s recorded that at one time 2,000 Teachers and 10,000 Students from all corners of the Buddhist world lived and studied there, and that its library was so vast that it took three months to burn to the ground after the Muslim forces set fire to it.

Two of the most famous residents of Nalanda are said to have been Nagarjuna and Shantideva. Legend has it that the former was abbot of Nalanda and that during his tenure he defeated 500 non-Buddhists in debate and expelled over 8,000 monks who did not properly observe the precepts. Modern scholars doubt Nagarjuna was ever there since archaeological evidence suggests that the site was not occupied until sometime after the 4th century (Nagarjuna lived in the 2nd or 3rd century) and as noted above, the university was not even established until the 5th century.

While it is easier to believe that Shantideva studied at Nalanda during the 8th century, the famous account about his stay at the center is almost certainly fantasy. According to the story, Shantideva was not very well liked. The officials and students thought he was lazy and no-good. When everyone else was busy studying and practicing, all he did was sleep and eat and use the toilet (later called Shantideva’s “Three Perfections”). They wanted to kick Shantideva out of Nalanda. However, they decided that he should be compelled to give at least one teaching before they expelled him. So one day they came up and demanded that he give a teaching. Shantideva had never given one before so he was hesitant, but eventually he said okay, let’s do it.

They gathered a large group of monks together and erected a very high throne for Shantideva to sit in. What the teachers and students had in mind was to embarrass Shantideva because they figured that he wouldn’t know how to get up into the throne. But when Shantideva merely touched the throne, it shrank to normal size. He sat down and the group demanded he present a teaching that had never been given by anyone before.

Nalanda ruins

Shantideva then recited the Bodhicharyavatara or “A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,” in its entirety, all ten chapters, and when he got to the 34th verse of the 9th chapter he rose into the sky and finished the rest of the teaching from atop a cloud.

Shantideva soon left and everyone was immediately bummed and regretted their attitude towards him because by then, of course, they realized he was a great and wise teacher. According to one version of the story, officials from Nalanda finally caught up with Shantideva and begged him to return, but he refused to come back, although he did clarify some of his teaching for them.

It may be that this famous Buddhist text was part of some oral transmission, but it is doubtful that it was created as the result of a spontaneous recitation. As the Dalai Lama notes in his book, A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night, Shantideva’s work was written “in the form of an inner dialogue. [Shantideva] turned his own weapons upon himself, doing battle with his negative emotions.” So, in this way, the work was “composed,” from a process of considerable deliberation and contemplation.

Shantideva’s Guide is essentially a text about bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. In the 9th chapter, “Transcendental Wisdom,” he discusses the Madhyamaka (Middle Way school founded by Nagarjuna) view of the concept of sunyata or emptiness. Verse 34, the verse that caused Shantideva to ascend to the sky, reads:

When the mind encounters an entity or a non-entity, since there are no possible alternatives, and having no objects, it becomes peaceful.

Sep 052014

After I included Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem (“What happens to a dream deferred?”) in my August 19th post, “Hands UP, Don’t Shoot,” I realized it had been many months since I had posted any poetry on the blog.  It’s not good to go too long without poetry, and a recent comment on The Endless Further’s Facebook page put me in mind of Ryokan (1758-1831), one of Japan’s most famous poets and calligraphers.

In 1790, when Ryokan was 32, his master, Tainin Kokusen (1723-1791), abbot of Entsuji, a large Sôtô Zen monastic center, wrote him a poem:

Ryokan! How nice to be like a fool
for then one’s Way is grand beyond measure
Free and easy, letting things takes their course –
who can fathom it?
I therefore entrust to you this staff of wild wisteria
Whenever you lean it against the wall
Let it bring the peace of a noonday nap.

The poem is presented in Great Fool: Zen Master Ryokan : Poems, Letters, and Other Writings By Ryokan. In Ryuichi Abe’s essay, “The Poetics of Mendicancy,” he notes that “Kokusen praises Ryokan’s carefree spirit, which can easily be mistaken for that of a fool. Almost all subsequent biographies introduce Ryokan with this name: ‘Great Fool’.”

Evidently, he had Ryokan, a good sense of humor and didn’t take himself too seriously. He wasn’t too proud to refer to himself as Taigu or “Great Fool.”

Ryokan spent most of his life as a wandering mendicant and then as a hermit.  He was a Zen priest, poet and calligrapher, and lover – at age 68 he had a love affair with a young woman 40 years his junior.

In a biographical sketch of Ryokan found in Shapers of Japanese Buddhism, Aishin Imaeda writes,

Put simply, Ryokan was a man of love. He loved everyone equally. He gave the clothes off his back to a beggar who came to his hut. So that a thief could take his bedding from him, he rolled over, pretending to be asleep. If he had rice he joyfully gave some to birds or wild animals. He placed lice inside his robes, and left a leg outside his mosquito net so that the mosquitoes could drink his blood. He had boundless love of all living beings and all of nature.”


Ryokan’s residence at Gogo-an.

Many stories grew up around Ryokan, and it’s doubtful all these tales are true, but there may be some substance to the robbery story because he composed a poem about it:

At least those robbers
left one thing behind –
the moon in my window.

Ryokan entered the Sôtô order at 18 when he became Kokusen’s disciple. Kokusen was a famous Zen master at the time.  After Kokusen died, Ryokan left Entsuji temple, wanting to find a purer spiritual life. He wandered for many years and in 1804 finally settled at Gogo-an, a cottage on Mount Kugami where he became a recluse.

He was sometimes called “Temari-Shonin” (“The Priest who Plays with a Temari ball”) because he often played with a Temari ball (Japanese cotton-wound ball) together with children in the mountain village. Ryokyan loved children, he loved the serenity of nature, and, as mentioned above, he loved a woman. That in itself is not particularly exceptional, of course, but with Ryokan we must take into consideration his “profession” as well as the age difference between himself and his lover.

Around 1826 he began a relationship with a beautiful 28-year-old woman named Teishin. She had been born the daughter of a samurai in the domain of Nagaoka in Echigo province. She married a doctor when she was 17, and five years later after his death she became a Buddhist nun.

The story goes that Ryokan became sick and could no longer continue living as a hermit and moved into the home of one of his patrons. Teishin was traveling through the same town and heard that Ryokan was infirm and staying in a small house nearby, and went to care for him.  She was not only beautiful but also literary. Ryokan fell for her right away, and evidently, the feeling was mutual. When his health improved, they would meet in the foothills.  I’m not sure if it is known whether or not their love was ever consummated physically, but the two did exchange a series of tender poems.

In 1835, Teishin’s Hachisu no tsuyu (“Dew on the Lotus”), a collection of Ryokan’s haiku and waka poems were published for the first time. In 2004, this collection was translated by John Stevens, and from that translation, here is a short selection from the poems Ryokan and Teishin exchanged:

“Ry?kan and Nun Teishin” by Yasuda Yukihiko (1884–1978)

“Ryokan and Nun Teishin” by Yasuda Yukihiko (1884–1978)


Playing temari [a ball] with the village children
You enjoy walking Buddha’s path
How fruitful and inexhaustible it is!


Won’t you bounce the ball?
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,
Ten is the goal,
You must repeat again!


Was it really you I saw,
Or is this joy
I still feel
Only a dream?


In this dreamworld we doze
And talk of dreams
Dream, dream on,
As much as you wish.

Teishin was at Ryokan’s when he died. it’s said that before he expired, he composed this final poem:

Showing their backs
Then their fronts
The autumn leaves scatter in the wind

Sep 032014

Never having had a near death experience, I am not sure what to think about them. I am inclined to believe that they are mostly in the nature of hallucination. However, a panel of psychiatrists at the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDs) 2014 Conference held this past weekend in Newport Beach, Ca., stressed that while “there are people who have hallucinations and need certain treatments to function well and live healthy lives, near death experiences (NDEs) should not necessarily be lumped in with such hallucinations.”

People who have near-death experiences often report seeing a white light. Last year, researchers at the University of Michigan discovered some scientific evidence to explain this phenomenon. Evidently, the brain continues to function for up to 30 seconds after blood flow stops, and this electrical activity may account for the appearance of “light.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, it’s thought that certain practitioners also experience a white light or the “clear” luminosity of emptiness at the moment of death. Robert Thurman, in his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, describes clear light as “transparency,” for it is “the subtlest light that illuminates the profoundest reality of the universe . . . It is an inconceivable light, beyond the duality of bright and dark, a light of the self-luminosity of all things.”

The Dalai Lama, during a 1991 teaching in New York, explained clear light this way,

I don’t think that in the term clear light should be taken literally. It is sort of metaphoric. This could have its roots in our terminology of mental will. According to Buddhism, all consciousness or all cognitive mental events are said to be in the nature of clarity and luminosity. So it is from that point of view that the choice of the term light is used. Clear light is the most subtle level of mind, which can be seen as the basis or the source from which eventual experience or realization of Buddhahood, Buddha’s wisdom might come about, therefore it is called clear light.”

As an extremely subtle level of mind, the concept of clear light is akin to the notion of Buddha-nature, the purest state of mind in which one is able to apprehend the true nature of reality, a state of mind that is stable enough to withstand the vicissitudes of most mental afflictions, a mind imbued with a deep sense of compassion.

According to Buddhist teachings, the moment of death presents the greatest opportunity for realizing wisdom and healing, and that the scope for spiritual healing is not limited by death but can actually continue after death. Of course, it would be foolish and wasteful to wait until then to realize an enlightening state of mind. This is why Buddhism emphasizes the present moment, because awakening is always possible, always near at hand.

However, even though sudden flashes of clear light are available in the timeless reality of now, it requires effort, and time, to experience them, and once experienced it is not a fait accompli, a done deal, irreversible, requiring no further endeavor on our part. As I have said many times here, and you may know that it is the theme of The Endless Further, awakening is a continuous process, for if there is such a thing, how could it be anything else?  Awakening or enlightenment, cannot be defined, so how can it be a destination, an end point?  It is an ceaseless journey that takes place only though living, in daily life.  As Krishnamurti said, awakening means to be a light unto oneself, and in that way then, we are the clear light.

Here’s some guys who were clear light, too. Straight from L.A. circa 1966, a long-forgotten, unheralded psychedelic rock band named Clear Light:


See the sand
Lying by . . .
The ocean!
Golden sun
In metal sky
. . . Burning!
Shimmering heat lies heavy . . .
. . . Lies in
Grass brown search
For cooling air
Dying, dying with you!
Harshness flees,
Colors fade,
Night falls!
Quiet winds
Search silver sands
. . . Wandering!

Sep 022014

I used to be a sacker. No, I spelled it correctly. Sacker, not slacker. Most of you don’t know what a sacker is, or was. Probably never seen one.

Sacking groceries was a fine old American tradition.

Sacking groceries was a fine old American tradition.

It was one of my first jobs. A sacker was a supermarket employee who placed a customer’s groceries in a paper sack (bag) after the clerk rang up the price on the cash register. Often a sacker would then carry the customer’s bags out to their car, or place the bags in a cart and wheel it out to the car, especially if it were a female customer, with a bunch of kids, or elderly, or all of the above.

It was a service the store provided. Because this was a time when providing good service was as important as having a good product. The bags, or sacks, the groceries were placed in were free. And I like to think that was because this is America and free bags is the American Way.

Well, that is a time, and an America, that is long gone.

Until this year, while shopping I have never paid for a bag of any kind in my life. Be it paper or plastic, whether at a supermarket, department store, liquor store, convenience mart, bookstore, or whatever, bags were free.

But last year the draconian Los Angeles City Council passed an Orwellian law that prohibits large grocery stores, smaller independent markets and liquor stores from providing free plastic bags, the idea being that customers would have to bring their own reusable bags, or purchase a bag.

Girls could be sackers, too.

Girls could be sackers, too.

Plastic bags are a problem. They litter the city streets. They end up in the ocean. Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it. A single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. Plastic bags suck.

But so does L.A.’s bag law.

All it has accomplished is to create a windfall profit for grocers, who already gouge us enough. And hasn’t done a dang thing to stop the proliferation of plastic bags.

The stores, eying a money-making opportunity, has worked it out like this: some of the reusable bags cost as much as $1; the free paper bags, once a staple of American shopping, that costs about 2 cents to make, sell for 10 cents (and easily fall apart), and we still have the plastic bags that everyone wanted to ban because consumers can purchase thicker, reusable plastic bags for 15 cents or more, or in some smaller markets, you pay a dime for the same old plastic bag that you once got for nothing.

Market analysts estimate the grocery industry will make millions by selling their cheap paper bags or reusable plastic bags, Gee, isn’t that nice?

As former comedian, Dennis Miller used to say, I don’t want to get off on a rant here but . . . this is insane. And it’s been sticking in my craw for while, and now the California legislature has just passed a statewide ban on disposable plastic bags that if signed by Gov. Jerry Brown would be first such statewide ban in the country.

And wait . . . disposable plastic bags?  Aren’t they all disposable eventually? What, the new bags lasts forever? Uh-huh.  Buddha say nothing last forever.

Sometimes sackers doubled as stackers.

Sometimes sackers doubled as stackers.

Obviously, I’m mad as hell and I am just going to have to take it. The chances of our politicians becoming enlightened anytime soon are extremely remote. The prospects for the citizenry, who have defeated their own purpose, to rise up in protest seem practically nil. Nope, we’ll just bear and grin it . . . and someday we’ll tell our grandkids that once upon a time bags were free and they’ll laugh and shake their heads and wonder if it was really like that way back in the olden times.

Soon all of our precious freedoms will be taken away . . . I just can’t believe there isn’t a better way to protect the environment, that is, if these bag laws actually do protect the environment . . . I have my doubts.  So, when the bag law comes to your town, be afraid, be very afraid.

By the way, you might want to be aware that the plastic bag ban is responsible for a spike in e coli infections, so make sure you wash your reusable bags and do what I do, use the still free produce bags to tote home your fruit, veggies, etc.

Aug 292014

Another Labor Day weekend is upon us, which for many people means summer’s end, the last big barbecue of the season, back to school, so on and so forth. Unlike Memorial Day, which we mark with commemorative ceremonies and concerts, very little is done to bring our attention to the meaning of Labor Day. It is in short, a celebration of the American labor movement, and I invite you to learn about the history of the holiday by visiting this Wikipedia page.

As for this piece, it is a reworking of my 2011 Labor Day post.

To me Labor Day and Woody Guthrie are synonymous. Woody had witnessed the exploitation of workers all across the United States. The word that was synonymous with labor for him was union. Woody Guthrie was committed to the union movement. He was convinced that American workers would find justice, equality, and security if they just unionized. A little poem from Woody’s notebook reads,

Ants got unions and so’ve these bees
Bosses don’t want union for you and me

Woody spent his life supporting the labor movement by singing his songs in the migrant camps, at the union meetings, and on picket lines – but he was not there just to cajole them into organizing, he was also there to lift their spirits and to remind them of their basic humanity.

He had a unique philosophy about unions, as he did about most things. Actually, his take on this word is not surprising because Woody considered himself a student of Eastern philosophy. Joe Klein, in Woody Guthrie: A Life, wrote about how Woody formulated his concept while serving in the Merchant Marine during WWII,

Woody_Guthrie by dmriley2It began with Cisco [Houston] and Jimmy’s [Longhi] running debate on hope and mortality, and burst into full flower with a stray phrase from a shipboard chaplain one Sunday morning: ‘As a rule, any activity of the mind which tends to show us the real ‘oneness’ of all things is great.’

Woody took off from there, using the word ‘union’ as a central proposition, tracing it from Buddha to the C.I.O. in a series of letters to Marjorie [his wife]. “The Chinese called it ‘yogin’ or ‘union.’ The Indians called it ‘prana’ or ‘energy,’” he wrote, adding that every great religious leader had believed in the same unifying concept . . .”

Cisco and Jimmy, by the way, were fellow artists who enlisted in the Merchant Marines with Woody, and somehow the trio ended up shipping together and having what Woody’s website describes as “humorous, dangerous, and often moving experiences.”

Here is Woody’s great anthem to migrant workers, Pastures of Plenty:

Listen to Woody sing “Better World,” accompanied by Will Geer (Grandpa on “The Waltons”), recorded in 1944.

Aug 252014

A Thai monk I know once taught me the phrase lokopatthambhika metta or “loving-kindness supports the world.”

But how? It is difficult to imagine, for the world seems supported, or certainly permeated, by darkness, evil, hatred, violence. You might think it must be a optimist/pessimist kind of thing, you know, where the glass is either half empty or half full. That’s not it, though. It is a whole other way of thinking. It’s like when John and Yoko said war is over, if you want it.

If we want it, metta or loving-kindness can be an active force. The Tevigga Sutta says,

And he lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of loving-kindness, and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, and everywhere, does he continue to pervade with a heart of loving-kindness, far-reaching, grown great, and beyond measure.”

One of the Buddha’s desires was that his disciples would truly care for other beings. The Buddha knew it is very easy to understand our own sufferings, but a real challenge to understand the sufferings of another person. He said that is the real meaning of sincerity – having empathy for the situations of others. And it is not just understanding their suffering, it’s also understanding their behavior. When we develop insight into behavior and identify with the emotions that drive behavior, it’s not so easy to judge and condemn.

But, back to the question, how does loving-kindness support the world? Perhaps we can get a clue from these words by the great teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti:

The moment you have in your heart this extraordinary thing called love and feel the depth, the delight, the ecstasy of it, you will discover that for you the world is transformed.”

Loving-kindness supports the world through transformation.