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.

Aug 232014

If you like ambient music, you know, music that meanders, doesn’t really go anywhere . . . then you’ll love some of the music I make.  I call it ambient music, ala Brian Eno, mainly because I figure if pointless music is good enough for him, then it’s good enough for me.  I’m being a bit self-effacing here . . . actually I think this latest piece I’ve created and uploaded to my YouTube channel is pretty cool.  This is the short version.  The longer one is about 16 minutes.

Aug 212014

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently published a study titled “A computational and neural model of momentary subjective well-being.” In other words, researchers have developed a mathematical model for happiness.


Yes, this is an instant of happiness, reduced to arithmetic.

The study says, “Using computational modeling, we show that emotional reactivity in the form of momentary happiness in response to outcomes of a probabilistic reward task is explained not by current task earnings, but by the combined influence of recent reward expectations and prediction errors arising from those expectations.” Frankly, I have no idea what that means. But if I were to hazard a guess, I would say it probably means that happiness is somewhat dependent upon our expectations, or that happiness is determined by how we experience it.

Buddhism teaches a path to happiness but also maintains that happiness cannot be known. It’s not something we can grasp with our intellect. We can’t “know” happiness like we know a table, or a chair. It is a state of mind, a life condition. Therefore, we can experience happiness.

According to Buddhism, any experience of happiness must include all living beings. It is not an individual thing, separate from others. Shantideva said,

All happiness in this world comes from desiring the happiness of others. Why say more?

Indeed. ‘Nuff said.

Aug 192014

monks-ferguson2bYesterday, monks from the Drepung Monastery, here in the U.S. as part of the Drepung Gomang Sacred Arts Tour 2014, traveled from one of their first stops on the tour, St. Louis, to nearby Ferguson, Mo to stand in solidarity with the townspeople there in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer.

Antonio French, President of the North Campus organization, posted this short video clip of the monks.

Drepung Monastery is one of the most respected monasteries and centers of learning in Tibetan Buddhism. It is part of the Gelug school, of which the Dalai Lama is the head, founded in 1416 by one of Tsongkhapa’s main disciples, Jamyang Choge Tashi Palden (1397–1449). At one time it housed as many as 10,000 monks.

During the 1950s, the monastery was under the iron heel of the Chinese security services. Depung, along with the sister monasteries, Ganden and Sera, reestablished themselves in exile in the Karnataka state of south India.

After violence escalated during monk-led protests in March 2008, and shops and vehicles were looted and torched, trucks full of troops surrounded Drepung in Lhasa and the nearby Sera monastery. Chinese authorities expelled hundreds of Deprung monks, many residences were closed down and sealed, and severe restrictions imposed.

Watching the events in Ferguson unfold this week has been painful, troubling. While it is a complex issue, one thing seems very clear to me.

In America, there should be no mistrust of police. Yet, as President Obama pointed out yesterday, “In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement.”

Here is an example of why that is the case: Last night on CNN, Capt. Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, a central figure in the Ferguson situation, said that police could not risk their lives. But that is precisely what they are supposed to do. When a man or woman puts on a police uniform, it is like a contract between them and the public, they pledge to risk their lives to protect the lives of all citizens, innocent bystander, victim, perpetrator alike. Too often, however, police act as though they were in a Western movie. They shoot first and ask questions later. Until that attitude changes, the cycle of mistrust will keep repeating.

Sadly, Ferguson puts me in mind of this poem composed by the poet laureate of Harlem, Langston Hughes, some 63 years ago:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Aug 152014

This is a repost of sorts, parts of this piece culled from a couple of previous posts, prompted by Thursday’s Turner Classic Movies schedule. Every year in August TCM does Summer Under the Stars where they dedicate each 24-hour period of programming to one actor or actress. Yesterday, it was Charlie Chaplin, and boy, I needed him.

charlie_chaplindChaplin was one of the world’s greatest comedians, and yet, I rarely laugh during his films. I am, however, captivated by his sublime artistry and touched by his sensitivity – he was a genius. There is something about his Little Tramp character that to me is not only timeless, but very Buddhist.

Although I’ve tried and I’ve tried, I have not been able to find a connection between Charlie Chaplin and Buddhism. Well, except for the Cao Dai (“high place” or altar) sect of Vietnam that worships Charlie. Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to say they worship Chaplin, but they do revere him as a saint, and then Coadaism is not exactly Buddhism, it’s a monotheistic religion that James P. Harrison describes in The endless war: Vietnam’s struggle for independence as “claiming inspiration from all the great religious thinkers from Buddha and Confucius to Jesus Christ and Muhammad to Victor Hugo, and even Charlie Chaplin.”

Now, at one time Chaplin was about as close as you can get to sainthood while still breathing. From the late teens of the last century and into the 1930’s, he was arguably the most beloved man on the planet. Almost everyone could relate to Charlie in one way or another, especially everyday people, working class people, folks who were closer to the bottom than the top. Charlie represented them. He was all of them, packed into one baggy pair of pants. When he kicked a cop or tricked a bullying boss or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he did what they wanted to do – strike a blow against authority. Charlie’s Little Tramp character was usually left with the short end of the stick, rarely got the girl he loved, and at the end of many of the films, he wandered off alone, lonely and a little sad.

Because his films were silent, they transcended language. People the world over considered Charlie to be one of them. The upper classes could appreciate his artistry and use of pathos, while the lower classes could cheer him on. St. John Ervine, in a 1921 article for Vanity Fair, wrote, “Mr. Chaplin has conquered the world because he has remained of the world.”

While there may be no direct connection between Chaplin and Buddhism, he did have a connection to Gandhi. He was a great admirer of the Mahatma. The two met in London in 1931. Gandhi was staying at Kingsley Hall Community Centre, operated by Muriel Lester, a Christian pacifist. In her 1932 book Entertaining Gandhi, she relates this story in which it seems Gandhi was one of the very few people who had not heard of The Little Tramp:

Chaplin sitting next to Gandhi 1931

One of my clearest mental pictures is of Mr Gandhi sitting with a telegram in his hand looking distinctly puzzled. Grouped round him were secretaries awaiting his answer. As I came in, the silence was being broken by a disapproving voice saying ‘But he’s only a buffoon, there is no point in going to meet him.’ The telegram was being handed over for the necessary refusal when I saw the name.

“‘But don’t you know that name, Bapu?’ I inquired, immensely intrigued. ‘No’ he answered, taking back the flimsy form and looking at me for the enlightenment that his secretaries could not give.

‘Charlie Chaplin! He’s the world’s hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures.’”

Off-screen, Charlie was not all that saintly. He had his peccadilloes, so to speak, which I will not go into here. But on-screen, as the Little Tramp, he seemed to perfectly capture the essence of the human spirit. He once made the Buddha-like statement, “Loneliness is the theme of everyone.” Chaplin knew loneliness, he knew suffering. He grew up in a hard era – the end of the austere Victorian age – his father an alcoholic, his mother* mentally ill, Charlie and his half-brother Sydney labored in a workhouse and lived in a home for orphans and destitute children. Charlie Chaplin knew more suffering by age 10 than most of us have known our whole lives. He understood in the depth of his being that when someone makes a declaration of no surrender and sticks to it no matter what, amazing things can take place in that person’s life. That sentiment is superbly  expressed in the transcendent final scene of his last ‘silent’ film, Modern Times.

Usually, it’s not a good idea to show the final scene of a film, but in this case it may inspire any who have not yet seen the movie or experienced Charlie Chaplin to make an effort to do so. You probably know the background music, you’ll say or sing the words in your head as it plays, a song written by Chaplin . . .

One of the most enduring, and touching, images in film . . . the Little Tramp – and this time, he gets the girl – and they walk off together down that long, dusty road . . .

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking . . .

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* A somewhat interesting aside: Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, had an adulterous affair with a man name Dryden and 3 years after Charlie was born, she gave birth to George Wheeler Dryden, who in 1938 became father to a certain Spencer Dryden, later the longest-serving drummer for the Jefferson Airplane.

Aug 122014

Sometimes great benefit follows great tragedy . . . Robin Williams’ unfortunate death by suicide has drawn some much-needed attention to the disease of depression.

Addiction is often a gateway to depression, and vice versa. Williams may have had a genetic predisposition toward developing both. The major surgery he underwent in 2009 to replace his aortic valve may also have been a factor. As I recently learned firsthand, major surgery can lead to major depression.

Last photo of Robin Williams via Instagram, July 21, his 63rd birthday

Last photo of Robin Williams via Instagram, July 21, his 63rd birthday

During an appearance on the Ellen Degeneres show, Williams dismissed any suggestion that he may have suffered from depression after the surgery. I suspect he was either in denial or uncomfortable talking about depression.  He did have this to say: “they literally open you up, they crack the box, and you get really vulnerable . . . and you get very, very emotional about everything.”

That was my experience in the hospital following my liver transplant. I was extremely emotional, crying at the drop of a hat. Not sad, I was happy, appreciative. I came home, was fine for a few weeks, and then . . .

Depression following major surgery is caused by a complex mix of physical, emotional, and behavioral changes a patient goes through, and in my case, there was also the medication to suppress my immune system so my body will not reject the new liver and the medicine I take to offset side effects of the anti-rejection meds. Quite a combo.

Like most people, I get depressed from time to time. It usually doesn’t last long. This was something else entirely, and it came to a climax over the 4th of July weekend. I felt alone, hopeless, helpless. I couldn’t eat, read, do any of things I would normally do when I feel blue. All I wanted to do was sleep . . . and I was thinking about the Big Sleep and how to induce it.

For the first time in my life I was afforded a glimpse into the desperation someone in the grip of severe depression must feel, when the agony of trying to get through another day seems so overwhelming that you think, what’s the point? Why try? Who cares?  You sort of just want it over.

That Sunday, I heard from my cousin. She was sick. She was afraid her cancer was back and that it was spreading through her body. I only felt worse after that. The next day I went on a clinic visit and had a meltdown in front of my doctor and the social worker. They were very patient, spent lots of time with me that morning. My doctor wrote a prescription for anti-depression medication. He said it would take 6 weeks for the drug to take effect. Listen, when I take pills, I want ones that are fast acting. I still haven’t filled the prescription.

On the way home, I began to fell lighter. Maybe it was just getting everything off my chest – and I was brutally honest about what I was going through, I didn’t hold back. I began to think about my cousin. What she was facing was much worse than what I was going through. When I got home I had some unexpected interaction with another USC transplant patient, a guy who has been on the waiting list for a transplant six years. I was on the list only a year and a half, cancer put me on a fast track. I reflected on all the people I had met during the that time, some who were very sick and weren’t going to make it, some that I saw just that morning, who had transplants also and were not doing nearly as good physically as I was.

What was I grousing about? I was so fortunate. My recovery was coming along phenomenally.  So many people had gone to bat for me, invested time and energy. What was wrong with me?  Look at all the others who are having a much rougher battle, my dear cousin was probably dying . . . Empathy began to kick in.

One of the books I relied on during my journey through liver disease and cancer was Ultimate Healing The Power of Compassion by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. It is about inner healing, based on the traditional Tibetan Buddhist healing philosophy where to cure any disease, you must first cure the mind.

I went back to the book, found a passage that had always stuck in my mind:

A compassionate person is the most powerful healer, not only of their own disease and other problems, but of those of others. A person with loving kindness and compassion heals others simply by existing.”

When you are suffering from depression, you question the value of your existence, and in your twisted thinking, you wonder if life is worth holding on to, but, here it says that just by existing your life has meaning.  A very powerful thought. Very easy to forget. Analyzing my own situation from a Buddhist perspective, I would say the root cause of my depression was self-centeredness. I was indulging in self-pity, feeling sorry for myself.

Compassion gets you out of yourself.  You can take the Noble Eightfold Path, the Bodhisattva Path, and all the 80,000 Buddhist teachings, and distill them all down to this: the enemy is your self, the battle is to win over yourself.  Compassion is the art of this war.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche has a section on dealing with depression.  I glossed over it before.  I wasn’t depressed then.  He writes,

What made you experience this depression? Your ego, your self-cherishing thought. There is an immediate connection between depression and the strong cherishing of I. You become depressed basically because the ego doesn’t get what it wants or expects.”

A former child star is taking some flak for tweeting that Williams was selfish by committing suicide. But he’s right. A person in a fog of depression has limited vision, and is capable of little wisdom. So wrapped up in their own pain, the pain that they will cause others with their act does not enter into the mind, or if it does, it is dismissed, or overshadowed by the darkness.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche offers three powerful techniques for fighting depression: remember impermanence and death, experience your depression on behalf of others, and give your depression to your ego. I like the last one. Why not? Since your ego is not you, and not real, but just a manifestation of self-cherishing thoughts, let the ego take care of the depression. Lighten your load.

orson-welles_trialI don’t know how serious was my bout with depression. It seems to be over and done with, although some residue lingers. When my thoughts were at their darkest, there was still the faint light of others that shined through – I could never intentionally do something that would inflict that kind of pain on my father and my other relatives or friends. Obviously, the darkness that surrounded Robin Williams was deeper.

I wrote above that Williams might have been in denial about post-surgery depression. It’s also been suggested that his periodic rehab check-ins to “maintain his sobriety” over the years, were covers for depression treatment. Strange commentary on our society where treatment for substance abuse has less of a stigma than treatment for psychological issues.

A few days after my cousin died, a tenant in my building left a few books in the laundry room for others to take, a romance novel, a science fiction adventure, and Against Depression by Peter D. Kramer. I grabbed the latter. I haven’t read it cover to cover but rather have jumped around. Kramer sees depression as a disease (some say it is a disorder), and he advocates an all-out, take-no-prisoners approach similar to the one that allowed us to eradicate smallpox. He says, “Not fearing depression, we might love more generously.”

Only 16 or 17 percent of Americans ever experience major depression, yet Kramer also says,

For a group that extends far beyond the minority who go on to suffer the syndrome, depression is the disease that stands in the wings. Many of us, and here I include myself, spend much our lives fending off depression, in those we care about, but also in ourselves.”

His message is clear. Anyone can have depression. Anyone can feel so alone and hopeless that almost on a whim, even though the thought has been thought many times before, they can try to cut themselves with a knife, hang themselves with a belt . . . unless someone is there to stop them.

Robin Williams has left us. He’s left us laughing, but he’s also left us talking about depression and that is a good thing. I think he would want us not to fear depression, and I think he would be pleased if by talking openly about depression we were able to love more generously.

Aug 102014

Here is a well-known Buddhist story. There are a number of slightly different versions, this is mine:

A monk named Hung Chou came to visit the Ch’an master Ma Tzu one time and asked him, “Why is it said that in order to become Buddha you must give up both the idea of Buddha and the idea of yourself?”

Ma Tzu replied, “I will tell you, but when discussing such deep subjects, one should make a bow to the Buddha first.”

Hung Chou faced the statue of the Buddha and bowed. As he was making this prostration, Ma Tzu gave him a swift kick in the pants and knocked him over. Taken aback for a moment, Hung Chou was soon laughing hysterically.

He experienced immediate awakening, and later, he would tell people, “Ever since master Ma Tzu kicked me, I haven’t been able to stop laughing!”

If you have been around Buddhism a while, that is, brick and mortar Buddhism, you’ve probably had an experience similar to this, where you ask a teacher a sincere question and all you get is some cryptic answer. It can be frustrating. There are times when you want to say, for Pete’s sake, can’t you just give a straight answer for once? But a straight answer is not always what you need.

Ma Tzu (709-788) was a very famous Ch’an (Zen) master. He did stuff like that all the time, giving paradoxical answers and kicking students. Sometimes, though, instead of a kick he’d spray a little seltzer down their pants.

Now, had it been me in that situation, I would have asked, “Why do I have to bow to Buddha before we can discuss my question about giving up Buddha?” because that’s the kind of hairpin I am.

And if Ma Tzu had been in the right mood, he might been willing to provide a more straightforward explanation similar to this one given by Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind/Beginner’s Mind:

By bowing we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas. So there is no difference between [meditation] practice and bowing. Usually to bow means to pay our respects to something which is more worthy of respect than ourselves. But 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.”

And that is just about the best answer to why you must give up both the idea of Buddha and yourself that you will ever get, except for maybe a swift kick in the pants.

Aug 062014

Today, August 6, is the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It happened at 08:15 Japan time. The Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, released a bomb named Little Boy containing 64 kg (141 lb) of uranium-235 over the city. It took Little Boy 44.4 seconds to drop from 31,000 feet (9,400 m) to a height of about 1,900 feet (580 m) where it detonated.

hiroshima-damage4.7 square miles (12 km2) of the city was destroyed. Within seconds, 75,000 people were killed or fatally injured. 65% of the casualties nine years of age and younger. Beneath the epicenter of the explosion temperatures were hot enough to melt concrete and steel. 69% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. The bomb started fires that spread rapidly through wood and paper homes.

The blast released nearly 200 different kinds of radioactive isotopes (nuclear fission particles of uranium and plutonium that escaped fission). These particles and other materials irradiated by the bomb’s neutrons were carried high into the atmosphere.

The mix of massive amounts of airborne irradiated materials merged with heat and thermal currents from the firestorms caused it to rain within an hour of the bombing. Fallout particles mixed with carbon residue from fires created the deadly “black rain” reported by many eyewitnesses.

On that day, Hiromu Morishita was 14 years old and in the ninth grade. He survived. He became a calligrapher and teacher. He was president of the Senior High School Teachers’ Society and the Hiroshima Peace Education Institute in Japan. He wrote a poem:


MorishitaWatch dutifully
with your eyes.

Here, something happened that shouldn’t have.
Here now, something irreparable continues.
Here tomorrow, signs of everyone’s destruction
may appear.

Don’t watch with one eye.
Don’t watch with your arm or with your head.

With the heart of one who endures despair.

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“Hiroshima” (Morishita, Bradley, and Dougherty 14) Memories of the Future: The Poetry of Sadako Kurihara and Hiromu Morishita Commentary by Edward A Dougherty

Aug 042014

In its July 31 issue, the Onion reports this shocking development:

The field of psychology was brought to an immediate halt this week as disillusioned and weary practitioners of the discipline reportedly concluded that the mind could never possibly hope to study itself.”

lucydoctor3Finally, the head-shrink community has accepted what the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna revealed some 1700 years ago:

The mind does not know itself, cannot see itself.”

Indeed, if the mind cannot know mind, or even see it, how could it possibly study itself? There must be hundreds of thousands of folks in the psychology field worldwide in desperate need of therapy as a result of this revelation.

Nagarjuna said that because of our fundamental ignorance, we seize the fixed nature of the mind, and as a result, the mind we seize is false. However, through an understanding of emptiness, we can comprehend the real nature of mind.

According to Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama, through meditation we can get a glimpse of what the mind is. When we are able to enter into the timelessness of now, the present moment, with no thoughts about the past or anticipations for the future, when our mind is not swayed by hopes and fears, or even thoughts, and that when

[You] are able to isolate your mind from such object oriented activity and insure that there is no thinking about the past or anticipation of the future, by trying to remain in the present, then gradually you are able to sense an absence, an emptiness, and that through persistent practice of meditation, slowly, I feel that you can begin to realize, experientially, what is this consciousness, which is the mere nature of experience and knowing, a form of luminous phenomena.

If you approach in this manner, I feel that there is a tremendous scope for discovery. I feel that at a certain point you will get, through your own experience, a sense of what [mind] really is.”*

Actually, the mind is like an onion, only by peeling it many layers can we get to the core.

- – - – - – - – - -

* UCLA, June 5, 1997