Fame and Fortune

General Stanley McChrystal
General Stanley McChrystal with two members of his inner staff.

General Stanley McChrystal views himself as a badass. Being a badass is cool, if you’re Bruce Willis playing a role in a movie, but in real life, if you are over the age of 25, being a badass is just immature. Maybe it’s time we had some adults running the military.

Now, apparently McChrystal and his wife have been married for 33 years and only see each other about 30 days a year. When she came on a special trip to Paris to see him, he takes her out drinking with the boys.  Maybe she didn’t mind. But, over the last two days I’ve read a number of things about  McCrystal’s drinking that make me wonder-from his preference for lime beer, to an incident back in his college days when a classmate found him passed out in a shower after drinking a case of beer. Generally, a case of beer is 48 cans or bottles. Let’s say it was only 24 or 12, that’s still a lot of beer. If you are still drinking like that in your 50’s, well, it could mean . . .

Brain: Are you pondering what I’m pondering, Pinky?

Pinky: I think so, Brain. But aren’t you supposed to put the lime in the coconut?

On a related subject:

Fame and fortune, how empty they can be,” sang Elvis Presley.

Elvis-Michael Jackson

Tomorrow will mark the one year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, and I’m sure there will tributes and blog posts galore about it, but since I was not blogging last year at this time, I’d like to jump on that bandwagon and make a few remarks.

I always knew Jackson would die too young, and tragically. By the mid-1980’s it was obvious that he was going down the same road that Elvis did. If I could see that, you’d think others could have, too, and perhaps done something to prevent it. Which only makes his death even more unfortunate.

I was watching CNN that afternoon when they came on with breaking news that Jackson had been taken to Cedars Sinai. I had a gut feeling right then that he was already gone.

Back in the day, when the Jackson Five came along, I was too old for teeny-bopper stuff, so I didn’t pay any attention to Michael Jackson until Thriller was released. “Billie Jean” was basically a rip-off of the Rolling Stones song “Miss You” but it had a beat and you could dance to it. I was watching the Motown 25 Special when Jackson performed the song and did the “moon-walk”, and I was blown away. It was similar to watching the Beatle’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (which I did); it was that electrifying. The guy was channeling Fred Astaire, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Elvis, and then heading off into a brand new territory that was all his own.

Then he just sank into weirdness. Remember when he wanted the Elephant Man’s bones? And I didn’t care much for the records after Thriller. The fire he lighted onstage for the Motown 25 show turned out to be nothing more than a wisp of smoke.

The parallels between Michael Jackson and Presley are many, and a little bizarre, considering his “marriage” to Elvis’ daughter.

Elvis Presley became world famous in 1956 when he was 21 years old. After that he lived life in a cocoon, a bubble, and never had a chance to mature as a human being. Like Michael Jackson, it started with a sizzling television performance. Not the famous only-filmed-above-the-waist performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, but an appearance on the Dorsey Brothers program, where he wiggled his hips, leered, and sang, “Baby, baby, let’s play house,” and he wasn’t talking about playing with dolls and miniature tea-cups.

At the end of ’56, it was off to Hollywood, then the Army where he got special treatment, and then a life of seclusion behind the gates of Graceland. Unlike most of us, there was no requirement for him to grow as an individual, confront his mistakes, compromise in his relationships, become skilled at problem solving, or learn to be responsible for his behavior. He was the King. Rarely was he told no, rarely was he disagreed with, and only in a few instances did anyone ever suggest that he should be held accountable for his actions. He was 42 when he died, but in terms of development, he was still 21.

When Elvis died, John Lennon, quoting a English poet, said: “The courtiers killed the king.” Only in the last few months of his life did anyone in Elvis’ inner circle attempt to prevent his self-destruction. By then it was too late.

Likewise for Michael Jackson. His childlike persona belied his immaturity. Episodes such as the one where he dangled his son outside a window also showed that his juvenile behavior could be dangerous.

The greatest enemy a celebrity faces is not artistic or business failure, nor intruding paparazzi, mad stalkers, or even their own misbehavior. It’s the sycophants and parasites around them, who feed off them, enable them, use them, and in some cases, may even kill them. Probably the only way to survive fame is to develop a sense of identity rather than a persona, to create a life that is not completely dependent upon your celebrityhood, and to surround yourself with people who have nothing to lose if they say that you are wrong or that you need to grow up.

Elvis didn’t have that. It appears that Michael Jackson didn’t either.

Frankly, though I have some empathy for him, I’d rather not remember Michael Jackson. But when I do, it won’t be for the person he was, because I didn’t see much there I liked, nor as a performer. The King of Pop was a self-given title, not earned. In terms of artistry, the truth is he’s nothing more than a blimp on the screen. When I remember Michael Jackson, it will be for the great potential that was wasted, the incredible talent that never matured, the promise of what might have been.

Worldly fame is but a breath of wind that blows now this way, and now that, and changes name as it changes direction.


If you live through the initial stage of fame and get past it, and remember that’s not who you are. If you live past that, then you have a hope of maybe learning how to spell the word artist.

Patrick Swayze

Fame is a bitch, man.

Brad Pitt


Prasannamati Mataji: A Nun’s Story

Here is a beautifully written account of a young Jain nun called Prasannamati Mataji. It’s a story about her absolute commitment to an extremely austere path, and her friendship with another nun. You will be inspired, saddened, and perhaps, disturbed. There is not a lot of literature about Jainism, so this is a rare opportunity to get a peek into that tradition.

It’s by William Dalrymple, a historian and travel writer, adapted from his book Nine Lives:

Two hills of blackly gleaming granite, smooth as glass, rise from a thickly wooded landscape of banana plantations and jagged Palmyra palms. It is dawn. Below lies the ancient pilgrimage town of Sravanabelagola, where the crumbling walls of monasteries and temples cluster around a grid of dusty, red-earth roads. The roads converge on a great rectangular tank. The tank is dotted with the spreading leaves and still-closed buds of floating lotus flowers. Already, despite the early hour, the first pilgrims are gathering . . .

Read the entire story here at the Washington Post.

I wonder what you will think at the end of it . . .


The Wisdom of Strategy

I watched the closing rounds of the US Open at Pebble Beach on Sunday. I’m not much of a golf fan. I don’t follow it regularly. I used to play a little golf but found it too frustrating. I watched on Sunday solely to see Tiger Woods.

Even though I haven’t anything invested in Tiger, not having followed him in action that much, I am satisfied when I hear those who are supposed to know these things say that he and Jack Nicholas are the two greatest players of all time.

I do have some sympathy for Tiger. I wish people would leave him alone. I don’t judge him because of his sex life. It’s nobody’s business and should be left between him, his wife, and the other parties involved. Hell, if I was his age (or even now) and I was world famous and had tons of beautiful women throwing themselves at me, I would find that hard to resist. Tiger’s human. Not perfect. Big deal.

Now a lot has been made about the fact that Tiger Woods is Buddhist. I’d like to know more about it but there isn’t much to go on, just these few statements:

I practice meditation – that is something that I do, that my mum taught me over the years. We also have a thing we do every year, where we go to temple together . . . In the Buddhist religion you have to work for it yourself, internally, in order to achieve anything in life and set up the next life. It is all about what you do and you get out of it what you put into it. So you are going to have to work your butt off in every aspect of your life.

That is one of the things that people see in what I do on the golf course but that is just one small facet of my life – I am always continuing to work.

-Quoted in Reuters, March 27, 2008

I have a lot of work to do, and I intend to dedicate myself to doing it. Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age. People probably don’t realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years. Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught.

-The so-called “confession” Feburary 19, 2010

Well, I had gotten away from my core values as I said earlier. I’d gotten away from my Buddhism. And I quit meditating. I quit doing all the things that my mom and dad had taught me. And as I said earlier in my statement, I felt entitled, and that is not how I was raised.

-ESPN Interview, March 2010

The Tiger Woods-Buddhism connection has generated a lot of comments recently, some of it quite negative, or what I consider negative, such as Brit Hume’s remark that Woods should turn to Christianity [Hume, by the way, can be a rather caustic fellow. I recall watching him make a highly inappropriate remark following Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s acceptance of the nomination to the Supreme Court, which incensed (rightly so) then President Clinton. If my memory serves me well, it cost Hume his job at ABC News.] , and most of the focus on Tiger’s Buddhism has revolved around the issue of redemption, forgiveness, and such questions as “Can Buddhism cure Tiger Wood’s sex addiction?”

I’m not particularly interested in any of that. What I’d like to know is if Tiger has applied any principles of Dharma in his playing, or how meditation affected his mental attitude, his strategy and so on. And, if Buddhism and/or meditation is playing a role in his comeback.

From what I’ve read, it seems that Tiger has a winning combination of aggression and control. I have the impression that in the past he has displayed a certain amount of calm on the golf course. He didn’t seem calm Sunday. He was inwardly seething when a television interviewer ask him what was positive about his performance that he could take with him. Tiger replied, “Not a whole lot. I told Stevie [his caddie] that I made three mental mistakes today and all it did was cost me the Open.”

Tiger needs to get his mojo back. He needs to get back in the Zone. Since everyone from Hume to the Dalai Lama has offered Tiger some advice, I don’t want to feel left out, and I’d like to give him some advice too. However, as I indicated above, I was as a miserable failure at golf, so I don’t feel qualified. Instead, here’s some words by Miyamoto Musashi, the great Japanese samurai and kendo master, who knew a thing or two about aggression and control. This excerpt is from The Book of Five Rings, a book on strategy, tactics, and philosophy still studied today by folks in all walks of life. I changed a couple of words, from “fighting,” “the enemy” and “battlefield” to what I’ve put in italics:

Mifune as Musashi
Toshiro Mifune as Miyamoto Musashi

In strategy your spiritual bearing must not be any different from normal. Both in playing and in everyday life you should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness yet not recklessly, your spirit settled yet unbiased. Even when your spirit is calm do not let your body relax, and when your body is relaxed do not let your spirit slacken. Do not let your spirit be influenced by your body, or your body influenced by your spirit. Be neither insufficiently spirited nor over spirited. An elevated spirit is weak and a low spirit is weak. Do not let your opponents see your spirit . . .

Do not be misled by the reactions of your own body. With your spirit open and unconstricted, look at things from a high point of view. You must cultivate your wisdom and spirit. Polish your wisdom: learn public justice, distinguish between good and evil, study the Ways of different arts one by one. When you cannot be deceived by men you will have realised the wisdom of strategy.

The wisdom of strategy is different from other things. On the golf course, even when you are hard-pressed, you should ceaselessly research the principles of strategy so that you can develop a steady spirit.


Just Silence

The BuddhaI suffer from tinnitus, ringing in the ears. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, I hear sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too, along with enough other tones, hums, and buzzes to make me think that Kraftwerk joined up with Pink Floyd and Brian Eno to perform an experimental music piece ala Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and that they decided the best place to rehearse is inside my skull.

If that’s not enough, I also go through periods where I am super-sensitive to any noise. I’ve been having one of those periods for the past three weeks. Water running from the faucet is like Niagara Falls. The toilet flushing is a nuclear explosion. When I go outside, the breeze sounds like a gale force wind. Inside, it’s like there’s a diesel truck parked beneath my window, gunning its engine. The vacuum cleaner sounds like a tank.

It’s suffering. Pure unadulterated suffering. Not to mention damn inconvenient. For one thing, when I’m one of these periods of extreme sensitivity to sound, it really interferes with my film watching schedule, and I love films. Even when I’m not in one of these periods, some films are just too loud for me. Most of the films I watch are on Turner Classic Movies. Older films seems to have less sound density and the dialogue is easier for me to hear (along with the tinnitus, I have hearing loss). Last night on Silent Sundays, they showed The Battleship Potemkin. In his introduction, Robert Osborne said that it was a classic up there with Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane. I remember seeing The Battleship Potemkin in college, and I thought it was overrated then, too.

But don’t get me wrong, I like silent movies. They do have music that was composed in later years, but I can turn it down low or have no sound at all. A few that I consider classics are John Ford’s The Iron Horse, Piccadilly, and The Sea Hawk. I’m a sucker for anything with Lon Chaney, Sr. or John Barrymore, and I’m a huge Chaplin fan. But with silent movies you have to make some mental adjustments because it’s a different kind of cinema and storytelling than what we are used to.

When I watch Chaplin, I often forget I am watching a silent film because I am so enthralled by his artistry, which I did not truly appreciate until I saw a documentary called Unknown Chaplin. So the best silent films are the ones that transcend their silent-ness and make you forget about it, and to me, that notion has some correlation with meditation.

Having this inner noise cramps my meditation style. As I’m sure you can imagine, overcoming such a hindrance is difficult. And my fall-back practice of chanting (which covers up the inner noise) is not an option when I am super-sensitive to sound because whenever I speak it feels like the earth rumbling. I ain’t kidding.

Now, one of the first books I read on mediation was The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by T. Nyanaponika in which he talks about how Mindfulness helps us to silence our internal dialogue and to “see things as they really are,” without forming judgments about them. On the surface, trying to silence my inner noise is not much different from that.

Our “internal dialogue” is composed of thoughts. Like everyone else, I have received instruction over the years about the usefulness of observing how things arise within the mind. However, it’s difficult to see this noise arising, it’s just there. It doesn’t have beginning or an end as a single thought does, or a feeling. Being there, inside my ears, my head, it seems to be an object, but it’s elusive.

When I am doing things, like talking to someone or working at the computer, there are times when I am unconscious of the inner noise, although I usually can’t enjoy these moments because as soon as I become aware that I have been unaware of the noise, the unawareness is gone.  The same thing can happen in meditation. As soon as we think about how we have let go of our thoughts, there’s another thought.

I am trying to rejuvenate my meditation practice. The first thing I am doing is not to have any goals. I am not trying to achieve anything with my sitting. I am literally just sitting. Not attempting to affect any transformation of consciousness, or be in the present moment, discover the power of now, find my Buddha nature, gain insight or wisdom. I only follow my breath for a few moments and then let that go, and I have the luxury right now of not having to set a time limit so I sit until I decide to get up.

I suppose there is a goal. I am striving for unawareness, total silence of being. However, being conscious of the unawareness only defeats the purpose. This is what Yen Hui means in Chuang Tzu when he says, “I forget everything while sitting down.” Confucius then asks, “What do you mean by sitting down and forgetting everything?” and Yen Hui replies, “I cast aside my limbs, discard my intelligence, detach from both body and mind, and become one with the Tao. This is called sitting down and forgetting everything.”

My first mental conception of Buddha was that he became one with all things. Then I got sophisticated about Buddhism and that seemed too new-age or something. Now I am going to back to this really basic sense I once had. Just trying to be one with the Tao, with pure Buddha, with everything. Just sitting down and forgetting everything, without trying to forget, without trying be one with anything.

I’ve never quite approached silent meditation quite this way, although many years ago I did some practice in Soto Zen. But this is the way I have always chanted mantras. Just chanting. Not with any goal or wish, just becoming one with the mantra.

They say that the best way to shake off the hindrances of mind is to understand their nature. I suspect now though that that works mainly on an intellectual level. I’m dealing with some other level, so I do not observe anything. I suppose you might call it non-observing. Just being silent, in the practice of forgetting.

Just sitting is called shikan taza, and sometimes it’s called “the method of no method.” In Zazen Shin, Dogen tells a story that is similar to Chaung Tzu’s, of a monk who after a sitting asks the master, “As you were sitting there all still and awesome like a mountain, what was it that you were thinking about?” to which the master replies, “What I was thinking about was based on not deliberately thinking about any particular thing.” Then the monk asks, “How can what anyone is thinking about be based on not deliberately thinking about something?” and the master says, “It is a matter of ‘what I am thinking about’ not being the point.”

In other words, not thinking of not thinking, just non-thinking. Later in the same work Dogen says,

This practice has, as its main point, our “acting as a Buddha without pursuing ‘becoming a Buddha.’” Moreover, because ‘acting as a Buddha’ is beyond ‘becoming a Buddha’, our spiritual question manifests before our very eyes. Again, our emulation of Buddha is beyond becoming a Buddha, so that when we break up the nets and cages that confine us, our sitting like a Buddha sits does not hinder our becoming a Buddha. Right at such a moment of sitting still, there is the strength that has been present for thousands of times, nay, for tens of thousands of times . . .

This post doesn’t have a main point. I’m just blogging. Telling my story, my thoughts. I don’t know whether there is something insightful here or not. I’m not necessarily trying to be insightful, or impress anyone with how well educated I am. I write fairly simple, straightforward posts, articulating some of the dharma in a way that I hope people will find interesting.

My point of view is this sense of The Endless Further, of wayfaring toward the infinite horizon of just seeking.What are we looking for? Really it’s inconceivable to us, so we truly are just purely seeking, looking for something we may have had a fleeting glimpse of, like the flash of lightening in the dark of night.

Just blogging. Just seeking.  Just sitting.

Just trying, without trying, to be one with the silence that has always been silent within.


Sunday Dharma: Thich Nhat Hanh “You are your father”

A somewhat different take on fathers and sons for this Father’s Day, an excerpt from a dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 10, 1998  in Plum Village, France:

We know that the core of the Buddha’s teaching is non-self. This is something people find very hard to accept, because everyone believes that there is a self, and you are yourself, you are not the other person. But with the practice of looking deeply, we see things differently.

You see yourself as a person, a human being; you say that you are not a tree, you are not a squirrel, and you are not a frog. You are not the other person. That is because we have not looked deeply into our true nature. If we do, we will see that we are at the same time a tree. It is not only in our past lives that we have been a tree or a rock or a cloud, but even in this life, in this very moment, you continue to be a tree, you continue to be a rock, you continue to be a cloud. In fact you cannot take the tree out of you, you cannot take the cloud out of you, you cannot take the rock out of you., because if you could, you would no longer be there as yourself.

In the Jataka stories it is said that in past lives the Buddha had been a squirrel, a bird, deer, an elephant, a tree. It’s very poetic, but it does not mean that when the Buddha was a human person living in the city of Sravasti, he was no longer a tree, a rock, a deer. He continued to be all of these. So when I look into myself, I see I still am a cloud, not only during a past life, but right now.

There is a lady who wrote a poem about her husband, who is a student of mine. That student of mine is very fond of my teaching. And she said, “My husband has a mistress, and his mistress is an old man who sometimes dreams of being a cloud.” I don’t think that description of me is correct, because I am not dreaming of being a cloud—I am a cloud. At this very moment you could not take the cloud out of me; if you took the cloud out, I would collapse straight away. You cannot take the tree out of me; if you did, I would collapse. So looking deeply into our true nature, we see that what we call self if made only of non-self elements. This is a very important practice, and it does not seem as difficult as we may imagine.

So you are the son, but you are not only the son, you are the father. If you take the father out of you, you collapse. You are the continuation of your father, of your mother, of your ancestors. That is non-self. Son is made of father, and father is made of son, and so on. And the practice is that every day we have the opportunity to look at things in such a way–otherwise we live in a very shallow way, and we don’t get to the heart of life.

A young man may say, “I hate my father. I don’t want to have anything to do with my father.” He is very sincere, because every time he thinks of his father, anger is coming up. It’s very unpleasant, so he wants to separate himself from his father, and he is determined to do so. But how could such a thing be possible? How can you take your father out of you? The hard fact is that you are your father. It’s better to reconcile with your father within. There is no other way out. You can behave like that when you believe in the reality of self, but the moment that you see the true nature of self, you can no longer behave like that. You know that the only way is to accept, to reconcile and to transform. You know that it is the discrimination, it is the ignorance in you which has caused the suffering.