Short Takes:Two Interviews

(AP Photo/Saul Loeb)

Aung San Suu Kyi is in the United States for a 17-day tour. Yesterday, she met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Just look at the expression of joy on Clinton’s face. It’s wonderful.

Suu Kyi was interviewed by Scott Stearns for Voice of America. He asked her this:

 STEARNS: One final question. Another question from Facebook – In your years under house arrest, what is it that kept it going? Did you feel that it was just never going to end?

ASSK:  No I never felt it was never going to end,  and I didn’t really feel the need for anything to keep me going.  I felt myself to be on the path that I had chosen and I was perfectly prepared to keep to that path.

I don’t know if I would have that kind of perseverance. Aung San Suu Kyi has been free nearly two years now, and she will be in Los Angeles at the Convention Center on October 2, and I am free to attend this free event. I am really looking forward to seeing and hearing this woman I have admired for so long. If you’re in the L.A. area and are interested, go here.

Dylan in 1963

Bob Dylan is also on tour in the U.S., and Canada. Last week, I shared some thoughts on Bob’s new album and I mentioned how he’s been accused of plagiarism. Accused is not the right word. It’s a proven fact. Bob has been a serial plagiarist going back to his high school days. Below are some links that discuss some of the incidents.

What does Dylan have to say about it? In a recent interview with Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone, he says, “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.”

He also claims, “In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition.” That’s true, to a certain extent. In rock, for instance, who hasn’t borrowed from Chuck Berry? That classic guitar riff has been used in plenty of songs with only a few of the borrowers crediting Berry, who in turn borrowed the lick from his piano player, Johnnie Johnson. Bruce Springsteen has been rather open about what he calls “stealing.” Listen to Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” sometime and then listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band.” It’s basically the same song, Springsteen just slowed it down.

Still, when an artist releases 3 albums in a row full of “quotation” and refried blues licks, it gets a bit old. I cannot believe the reviews Bob’s latest, Tempest, is getting. If it is the best album of the year, then the rest of the stuff out there must be really putrid.

In new interview Bob sort of confesses to stealing lines from Japanese novelist Junichi Yakuza (2001’s Love and Theft), and Civil War poet Henry Timrod (2006’s Modern Times).

Bob “writes” a poem in 1957.

Plagiarism in Chronicles Volume One.

Questions about Bob’s “Original” Artwork.

Share

Jack and the Buddhastalk

Today some more about Jack Kerouac’s connections with Buddhism. I’m one of those people who consider Kerouac an important American novelist. He possessed a phenomenal memory, almost total recall, and as his “novels” were autobiographical, he documented the affairs of a small group of people who would become known as the Beat Generation, and who would have a tremendous influence on American culture. His writing style was as spontaneous as the life he lived and documented, a completely unique voice in literature.

No, that’s not an ancient Buddhist scroll, it’s Kerouac’s original manuscript of “On The Road,” that he typed onto a 120-foot roll of teletype paper. (Photograph: AP)

Like Alan Watts, also identified with the Beat Generation to some extent, Kerouac was one of my earliest Buddhist influences. Unlike Watts, however, it was not what Kerouac wrote about Buddhism that impressed me, which in his novels is not a great deal, but simply that he was into Buddhism. Kerouac was cool, so Buddhism must be cool. That’s how I reasoned things back then.

Kerouac was probably introduced to Buddhism by Allen Ginsberg, who according to Gerald Nicosia (Memory Babe*), in 1953 “had begun an intensive study of Chinese and Japanese art, literature, and religion,” and “began to communicate his new enthusiasm to his friends almost immediately.” Nicosia reports that in late ’53, Kerouac was describing himself as a “big Buddhist.”

Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism, although intense, lasted only a few years. By 1957, he no longer considered himself Buddhist, and those readers familiar with his life story know that in his later years (he died in 1969), he retreated to his mother’s house in Lowell, MA where he returned to his Catholic roots, practiced his alcoholism and adopted some rather conservative views.

While he dabbled with meditation, I suspect Kerouac was more of a book-reading, intellectual kind of Buddhist. Nicosia says the texts most influential on him were the Surangama and Lankavatara Sutras, the Tao te Ching, the Sutra Spoken by the Sixth Patriarch, and most especially, the Diamond Sutra, as I wrote about the other day. All these works are found in Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible that he carried around with him in a leather wrapper. It’s likely that this one book was his sole source of Buddhist information, as it also contained a biography of the Buddha.

Various paperback editions of “The Dharma Bums.” (click to enlarge)

Buddhism permeated Kerouac’s writing during the period he immersed himself in its philosophy. The Dharma Bums is essentially the story of the relationship between himself and Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder), “the number one Dharma Bum of them all.” Snyder was, and is, a Zen Buddhist, but Kerouac was not particularly attracted to Zen, he was more interested in Indian and Chinese Buddhism. In the novel, he writes,

I’d say that was a lot of silly Zen Buddhism.” This took Japhy back a bit. “Lissen Japhy,” I said, “I’m not a Zen Buddhist, I’m a serious Buddhist, I’m an oldfashioned dreamy Hinayana coward of later Mahayanism,” and so forth into the night, my contention being that Zen Buddhism didn’t concentrate on kindness so much as on confusing the intellect to make it perceive the illusion of all sources of things.”

Desolation Angels, which he began writing in 1958 or 59, and not published until 1965, also reflects his interest in Buddhism, and as well, Japanese culture in the way he incorporated haiku poetry into his prose.

In 1956, Snyder suggested to Kerouac that he should write a sutra. This resulted in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, which Kerouac subsequently lost and was published without his participation in 1960. This work consists of 66 prose poems, and my favorite is Scripture 22:

Stare deep into the world before you as if it were the void: innumerable holy ghosts, buddhies, and savior gods there hide, smiling. All the atoms emitting light inside wavehood, there is no personal separation of any of it. A hummingbird can come into a house and a hawk will not: so rest and be assured. While looking for the light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.

You can read the entire work here.

During his Buddhist period, Kerouac also put together a “book of Dharma,” originally an attempt to explain Buddhism without using Buddhist terms. He struggled to get Some of the Dharma, as it was eventually titled, published during his lifetime, but it didn’t see publication until 1996:

Buddhism is a return to the Original mind.

Return those shoes
to the shoemaker
Return this hand to my father
This pillow to the pillowmaker
Those slippers to the shop
That wainscot to the carpenter,
But my mind
my tranquil and eternal Mind
Return it to whom?

In 2009, Penguin Books released Kerouac’s Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha, featuring a forward by Robert Thurman, who reveals that like many others, his interest in Buddhism was sparked by reading The Dharma Bums in his youth; Thurman calls it “the most accurate, poetic, and expansive evocation of the heart of Buddhism that was available at that time.”

Snyder: “the number one Dharma Bum of them all.”

Gary Snyder quoted in Memory Babe:

Jack made the moment everything – the present was where he wanted to be, and for people around him the present became the only thing that mattered.”

Overall, Jack Kerouac’s sense of what it meant to be in the present moment, along with his grasp of Buddhism, was to some degree immature and naive, fueled by a certain amount of hedonism and self-aggrandizement. Nicosia writes: “Although Jack would say, ‘I am Buddha,’ Gary was sure Jack knew better.” However, through the legacy of his words (“cease to cherish any arbitrary conceptions as to your own self, the selfhood of others, of living beings, of an Universal Self”), we get the sense that on an elemental and intuitive level, he got it. It’s just too bad he didn’t stick with it.

Here’s Kerouac in 1959 on the Steve Allen Show reading a medley of On the Road and Visions of Cody. He had a page of “Cody” taped inside of the first edition of “Road” he reads from. Dean Moriarty is, of course, the legedary Neal Cassady.

*Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (Grove Press, 1983)

 

Share

Secrets of the Diamond Sutra

In an Huffington Post piece (I’ll include the link at the end of the post), Joyce Morgan summarizes the fascinating tale of Aurel Stein and his discovery of an ancient copy of the Diamond Sutra along with 40,000 other scrolls at the “Cave of the Thousand Buddhas” in 1907. It’s a story documented more fully in the book she co-authored with Conrad Walters, Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book.

That the Diamond Sutra (“Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra”) is, as described by the British Library, “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book” is hardly news. However, I don’t think the complete story of this discovery has been told before, and I look forward to reading the book by Morgan and Walters soon. And for anyone interested in this subject, I recommend Kogen Mizuno’s Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission, a comprehensive account of the history of Buddhist texts.

The complete history of the Diamond Sutra (also called the “Diamond Wisdom” and “Diamond Cutter”) is unknown. It appears to be an adaption of the Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra, which I wrote about recently. The Diamond Sutra is thought to have been translated into Chinese in 401 CE by Kumarajava, who translated so many of the Buddhist sutras.

At the end of the Huffington Post piece, Morgan presents “4 Secrets of the Diamond Sutra” and I thought it might be interesting to expand upon them a little.

“The Diamond Sutra distills Buddhism’s central message that everything changes. It describes our fleeting world as a bubble in a stream.”

That’s certainly one of the themes of the Diamond Sutra, but there is much more. The Diamond Sutra, like the Heart Sutra, also based on the Maha Prajna-paramita, is an exposition on the Bodhisattva path. The sutra explains that a bodhisattva must abandon all concepts of “self,” “other,” “things,” and so on. When a bodhisattva helps another being, he or she should not have the idea that someone is being helped. In other words, one must rid the mind of all concepts and discrimination.

This is probably more the central theme of the sutra than the subject of impermanence. The Buddha explains that the ultimate truth cannot be expressed in words, and that no one attains Transcendent Wisdom (Prajna-paramita), and that, in fact, the very idea of attainment is a concept to be abandoned.

“Jack Kerouac was so influenced by the Diamond Sutra that he studied it daily for years and attempted his own rendition.”

Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palumbo, circa 1956

The great American novelist said it his favorite sutra. In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac makes four specific references to the Diamond Sutra, two of them reiterating the sutra’s theme of “without holding in mind any conceptions” and “ ‘Make no formed conceptions about the realness of existence nor about the unrealness of existence,’ or words like that.” There’s numerous allusions to the sutra with phrases like “shining diamond,” “diamond cutter,” etc. Kerouac’s Some of the Dharma, a book of notes and poems on Buddhism, is filled with references to the Diamond Sutra, as are many of his letters to friends.

References to the sutra can also be found in the opening section of another novel, Desolation Angels, where Kerouac describes his time spent on Desolation Peak in Washington State as a fire lookout. Then in Chapter 84, there appears to be an excerpt of his “rendition” (A Paraphrase of the Diamond Sutra). Raphael, by the way, is Gregory Corso:

Meanwhile Raphael has been reading the Diamondcutter of the Wise Vow (Diamond Sutra) that I paraphrased on Desolation, has it on his lap.

“Do you understand it Raphael? There you’ll find everything there is to know.”

“I know what you mean. Yes I understand it.”

Finally I read sections of it to the party to take their minds off the girl jealousies—:

“Subhuti, living ones who know, in teaching meaning to others, should first be free themselves from all the frustrating desires aroused by beautiful sights, pleasant sounds, sweet tastes, fragrance, soft tangibles, and tempting thoughts. In their practice of generosity, they should not be blindly influenced by any of these intriguing shows. And why? Because, if in their practice of generosity they are not blindly influenced by such things they will pass through a bliss and merit that is beyond calculation and beyond imagining. What think you, Subhuti? Is it possible to calculate the distance of space in the eastern skies? No, blissful awakener! It is impossible to calculate the distance of space in the eastern skies. Subhuti, is it possible to calculate the limits of space in the northern, southern, and western skies? Or to any of the four corners of the universe, or above or below or within? No, honored of the worlds! Subhuti, it is equally impossible to calculate the bliss and merit through which the living ones who know will pass, who practice generosity not blindly influenced by any of these judgments of the realness of the feeling of existence. This truth should be taught in the beginning and to everybody”…

They all listen intently… nevertheless there’s something
in the room I’m not in on… pearls come in clams.
The world will be saved by what I see
Universal perfect courtesy—
Orion in the fresh space of heaven
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven—

“Brevity is one reason for the Diamond Sutra’s popularity. It can be recited in 40 minutes.”

Well, it’s not as short of the Heart Sutra, of course. Some nice Chinese chanting of the Diamond Sutra at the end of this post.

“The Diamond Sutra of 868 A.D. is printed on paper, a material unknown in the West for another couple centuries.”

Not only that, but as Kogen Mizuno explains:

The world’s oldest extant examples of printing are dharani, or magical incantations, printed in Japan between 764 and 770 . . . These dharani were printed almost seven hundred years before the European development of movable type, with which the Gutenberg Bible is traditionally credited . . . Although Confucian writings seem to have been printed not long after the Diamond Wisdom Sutra, it was not until the beginning of the Sung dynasty that printing of the massive Tripitaka was undertaken (about one hundred years after the Diamond Wisdom Sutra). Though it would be another seven decades before the Chinese developed practical movable type, the earliest Tripitaka appeared nearly five centuries before Gutenberg Bible.”

Here is the Huffington Post piece on the Diamond Sutra.

This requires some patience, and about 43 minutes and 21 seconds: Diamond Sutra chanting in Chinese. It’s not the most beautiful Chinese chanting of this sutra that I’ve heard, but it’s the only authentic Chinese Buddhist version I could find on YouTube. If you listen carefully, you will hear what appears to be 2 or 3 part harmony.

Share

Tempest

Sorry, no Buddhism today. Bob Dylan instead.

I’ve been a Bobby D fan for a long time. I’ve seen him in concert many, many times and I’ve eagerly awaited release of each new album. You could say I’m sort of an amateur expert on the man, and in my opinion, the last decade or so, far from being a renaissance period in Bob’s career, has been a drought. I haven’t cared of any of his albums since 1997’s Time Out of Mind, and his voice has become so ragged that even I have trouble listening to it. My biggest gripe about the last 3 albums of original material was that I just didn’t care the songs. I didn’t like the lyrics, I am bored hearing him recycle old blues tunes, and although I liked where he was coming from with the mix of jazz and swing on some songs, he didn’t pull them off. There was a time when he could.

Yesterday, Bob released his 35th studio album, Tempest. Unfortunately, the drought continues. One of the first things a Bob Dylan fan learns is that it is futile to expect Bob to live up to anyone’s expectations. He travels his own road. But one expects something better than this, especially when it’s been several years between albums.

Tempest opens with “Duquesne Whistle.” Its catch old-timey melody is familiar, but it strikes me as the best song on the album. The second track has one of the better vocal performances on the collection with “Soon After Midnight,” an easy going love song.  After that it’s pretty much a case of, as Bob sings in “Narrow Way,” “If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.” In other words, you gotta take what you can get.

More recycled blues riffs with “Narrow Way” and “Early Roman Kings (Muddy Water’s “I’m a Man). The latter song at least has some fun lyrics:

They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers
They buy and they sell
They destroyed your city
They’ll destroy you as well
They’re lecherous and treacherous
Hell-bent for leather
Each of ’em bigger
Than all them put together
Sluggers and muggers
Wearing fancy gold rings
All the women goin’ crazy
For the early Roman kings

This album marks a return to the long-song form, with tracks clocking in at 7:25, 9:05, and 13:54. One of those, “Tin Angel” is folk music-styled ballad of desire and murder, while in “Scarlett Town,” (7:15) which is more or less another folk ballad, Bob’s voice is subtle and his phrasing effective.

Now if you want to hear an outstanding song about the sinking of the Titanic, I suggest you listen to the Carter Family’s “The Great Titanic,” the melody of which Bob “borrowed” for the title track, “Tempest.” Oh, and Bob’s song is also about the sinking of the Titanic. The longest song on the album, nearly fourteen minutes, it seems to me, without benefit of having the lyrics as with the other songs, a rather straightforward telling of the tale.

Unfortunately, these new longer songs lack the clever lyrics found in similar songs on “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire,” and neither do they have the surrealist imagery of “Desolation Row” and some of Bob’s other earlier work.

The track I was most looking forward to was “Roll On, John,” about John Lennon. I was hoping for something like “Lenny Bruce” from Shot of Love (“Lenny Bruce was bad/He was the brother you never had.”) Nope. Now, “Roll On, John,” features what I believe is a first in Bob’s career. In recent years, he’s been accused of plagiarism, and here marks the first time he has plagiarized the subject of his song:

Slow down you’re moving too fast
Come together right now over me
Your bones are weary
You’re about to breathe your last
Lord, you know how hard that it can be
Shine your light, move it on, you burn so bright, roll on John

Actually the first line is a double-plagiarism, ripping off not only The Beatles’ “Slow Down,” but Paul Simon’s “52nd Street Bridge Song.” The line from “Come Together” is obvious, and “you know how hard it can be” comes from “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” William Blake makes an appearance in “Roll On, John,” too (“Tyger, Tiger burning bright”), but I guess that’s okay since Blake is in the Public Domain. I can’t tell you how disappointing I find this song.

Maybe I’m being too hard on ‘ol Bob. He’s always borrowed melodies, and lines. But in the past, he did so more creatively. And it’s unfair to expect the current Bob to be like the old Bob. In fact, as I alluded to before, it’s virtually a sin. Still, I don’t expect Bob Dylan to be boring.

In “Long and Wasted Years,” Dylan sings “Don’t you know, the sun can burn your brains right out.” Yeah, I know that. I liked it better when he told me stuff I didn’t know, like “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.”

Now, here’s the video of “Duquesne Whistle.” Like the album, it’s strange, dark and violent, and it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the song. But I really like the tune:

One last beef: I really wish they’d let me know when they’re going to film Bob Dylan videos on Hollywood Boulevard. I’m only a mile away. I’d like to be there. Hell, I’d like to be in one. They can use me, abuse me, for free.

Share

From The Saffron Revolution to The Saffron Racism

Last week Buddhist monks in Burma led a demonstration in the city of Mandalay against the Muslim minority Rohingya, the first large monk-led demonstrations in Burma since the 2007 uprising against military rule. But things were different this time. Instead of marching for democracy, the monks were marching is support of President Thein Sein’s proposal that the Rohingya, described by human rights groups as one of the world’s most oppressed minorities, be segregated and deported.

The 2007 protests, called the Saffron Revolution after the color of monks’ robes, were widely hailed as a defining moment in the history of Burma. Sadly, this too may be on the same order, and the current situation seems as surreal as it is ironic. Thein Sein was Prime Minister in 2007, when the government waged a violent crackdown on the monks. Now, the monks are supporting him.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Asia Phil Robertson told Voice of America last week that the monks’ moral authority “raises the stakes in the sectarian tensions”:

The fact that these monks just several years ago were protesting for democracy and human rights, and are today now protesting for exclusion and potential deportation of a particular ethnic group causes some concern that the government in Burma may in fact listen to these kinds of voices.”

I wonder, though, if the monks haven’t now lost their moral authority. I am beginning to wonder if Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s champion of democracy, isn’t finding herself on “shaky moral ground.”

Aung San Suu Kyi continues to pick up criticism over the way she has reacted to the Rohingya controversy. As Jocelyn Gecker of the AP reports, “For weeks, Suu Kyi has dodged questions on the plight of a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, prompting rare criticism of the woman.” A blogger at the Huffington Post asks, Should Aung San Suu Kyi be Stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize? At the Wall Street Journal, William McGowan writes this:

In Europe to receive her belated Nobel Peace Prize when the Rohingya crisis peaked, Aung San Suu Kyi was like a deer caught in headlights. When asked if the Rohingya should be treated as citizens, she answered. “I do not know,” followed by convoluted statements about citizenship laws and the need for border vigilance. Nowhere did she or the NLD [National League for Democracy] denounce either the attacks or the racist vitriol that followed them, or express sympathy for the victims.

According to some analysts, Ms. Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak out reflected concern for her own parliamentary district, where anti-Rohingya feeling runs high. Others note the fierce racism of Buddhists in Rakhine, a state that plays a key role in the NLD’s wider electoral strategy.

The pinched response left many observers downcast. Journalist Francis Wade, who has followed the democratic transition in Burma closely, wonders whether Western observers have “overromanticized” the struggle between the NLD and the junta and if the pro-democracy movement ever had the “wholesale commitment to the principle of tolerance” many presumed.”

Perhaps we’ve also “overromanticized” Aung San Suu Kyi as well. “The Lady,” as she is often called, will be in the United States next week. She’ll travel to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the top honor bestowed by the US Congress. She will also pay tribute to five leading activists from Burma who will accept the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) 2012 Democracy Award honoring the Democracy Movement of Burma at an event scheduled for September 20 at Capitol. Suu Kyi will speak at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Ft. Wayne, Indiana Tuesday, September 25.

I truly don’t know what to think of all this. I find it bizarre, and terribly sad. A recent artcle in the Smithsonian.com suggests that “It is impossible to understand Aung San Suu Kyi, or Myanmar, without understanding Buddhism.” Well, I don’t understand.

I fail to see how anyone who has a commitment to Buddhist ideals can remain silent in the face of this kind of injustice. I’m willing to cut Aung San Suu Kyi some slack. I’m hoping there is some reason we don’t know about that explains her reluctance to speak out. I don’t feel quite as generous toward other quarters . . .

As the Saffron Revolution gives way to Saffron Racism, we also hear the sound of the Saffron Silence, as Buddhists worldwide continue to be largely silent on this issue . . . and once again, we say hello to darkness, our old friend . . .

Share