I Will

It’s Valentine’s Day when we celebrate all things romantic, a day of candy hearts, chocolates, flowers, love poems and love songs.

I thought that since this week we are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the arrival on these shores by The Beatles, I would share my favorite Beatles love song with you.  Actually, it was more of a solo effort by Paul McCartney for the “White Album,” and while he has received some flack over the years for his “silly love songs,” this is one of his best.

By the way, in case you don’t know, the girl who appears in the photos with Paul in the video below is Jane Asher, an English actress and author, and sister of Peter Asher, of Peter and Gordon, a respected record producer.  Paul and Jane were together from the early days of Beatlemania until mid-1968.

So, as you sally forth on this Valentine’s Day, just remember, as the Fab Four told us all those years ago, all you need is love and love to you all.

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They Called Him Rebel

“Let them call me rebel, and welcome; I feel no concern from it. For I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul.”

– Thomas Paine

Last week while much of the world mourned the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the passing of another actor went virtually unnoticed. Largely forgotten today, at one time he was poised for stardom and compared to James Dean, whom he greatly resembled.  He died of gallbladder cancer at the age of 72 in Los Alamitos, California on January 31.  His name was Christopher Jones.

Christopher Jones

Jones made only 6 films, most notably The Looking Glass War, based on the John le Carre bestseller, and David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, before he gave up acting to lead a quiet and obscure life.

Born in Jackson, TN, after joining the Army and serving a sentence for being AWOL, he moved to New York where he made his Broadway debut in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana.  One of the actors in the production, Shelley Winters, introduced him to actress Susan Strasberg, the daughter of famed Method acting coach, Lee Strasberg (Ms. Strasberg played a small part in my decision to seriously begin practicing Buddhism some 30 years ago).  Jones and Strasberg were married in 1965.  They later played opposite each other in Chubasco (1968) and were divorced soon thereafter.

Jones came to Hollywood in 1966 and starred in The Legend of Jesse James. Although the television series lasted only one season, Jones received more fan mail at 20th Century Fox than anyone since Tyrone Power years before.  Jones went on to act in just those half-dozen films and then gave it all up, supposedly in reaction to the murder of Sharon Tate with whom he may have been having an affair.  He stated that it caused him to have a nervous breakdown (that and the pressure of his many love affairs).  Tate and four others were murdered by the Manson Family in 1969.  Strangely though, Jones later lived in the guest house of the Benedict Canyon house where the murders took place

It is a shame Jones was never cast as James Dean because no other actor then or now would have been more prefect for the part, and it was seeing Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, that inspired him to become an actor.  I remember Christopher Jones best for starring in one of the most “far-out” movies made by American International, the studio that produced Roger Corman’s films, Vincent Price’s horror movies, the Beach Party series with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and a slew of biker flicks.  In Wild in the Streets, Jones plays a rock star who frustrated that his 14-year lead guitarist is too young to vote starts a protest movement (“Fourteen or Fight!”).  Eventually, the character, Max Frost, becomes President, and decides to put everyone over the age of 30 in “re-education camps” where they are forced to take LSD.

Wild in the Streets also featured Shelly Winters, as Max Frost’s over-wrought mother, and Hal Holbrook, in what became a breakout role for him.  Holbrook was cast as a U.S. Senator and then went on to a similar role in the TV series, The Bold Ones.  Also in somewhat of a breakout part was a young comedian named Richard Pryor, who played the drummer in Max Frost’s group, The Troopers.  The scene where Jones and Pryor share a smoke would hardly raise an eyebrow from today’s movie audiences.  But back in 1968, a white man and a black man putting their lips on the same cigarette was downright subversive.

Jones seemed to have no regrets about dropping out of the acting business, and offered no explanations.  “I am happy,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2000.  “I did exactly as I pleased – within my world.”

I thought the passing of this forgotten rebel deserved some mention.

And now, without further ado, here is Christopher Jones, as the one and only Max Frost, lip syncing the classic, “Shape of Things to Come”:

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I am among the first to benefit from new life-saving drugs

Regular readers of this blog know that I have been dealing with liver cancer for some time, a by-product of a creepy little virus called Hepatitis C (HVC).  The cancer has not been very aggressive but has the potential to kill me.  That’s what cancer does, of course.  My one hope for survival is a new liver.  But there’s a catch.  There always is.

If I re-infect the new liver with the HVC virus, the virus can come back – with a vengeance.  Therefore, it’s preferable to get rid of the virus before one receives a transplant.  Up until now, this was done with interferon.  The treatment is lengthy and can be quite severe.  After his death in November 2013, musician Lou Reed’s wife, Laurie Anderson (herself an accomplished artist) wrote, “Lou was sick for the last couple of years. First from treatments of interferon, a vile but sometimes effective series of injections that treats hepatitis C and comes with lots of nasty side effects.”  You get the picture.

Approximately 12,000 people die every year from Hepatitis C-related liver disease.  Many people with Hepatitis C do not have symptoms and do not know they are infected.  The virus has reached near epidemic levels, particularly among baby boomers.

When I was first diagnosed with the virus, the doctors said my infection was so mild that interferon would not help.  By the time I developed cancer, they were reluctant to treat me with interferon because of concerns about the side effects.

On December 6, 2013, the FDA approved two new oral drugs to fight Hepatitis C: Sovaldi and Ribasphere (NOTE: Evidently, Ribasphere has been around for awhile.).  The key word here is oral.  None of the “vile” injections.  And, fewer side effects.

I began taking these drugs on January 17.  My viral load (the amount of HVC particles floating in the blood) was 800,000.  After taking the new drugs for only 21 days, my viral load went down to less than 43.  Not 43,000 or 4300. Less than 43!  That’s as far as they can measure it.  It might be zero.  The doctors can’t tell.  Needless to say, a positive development.

And no side effects whatsoever.

It’s a revolutionary development.  If they had these drugs 5 or 10 years ago, I would not be in the fix I am today.  The new drugs could possibly save millions of lives.  I am the first patient at USC to begin taking the drugs, and I feel as though I am participating in something historic.

Ira Jacobson, MD, Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City says the new drugs “will have a major impact on public health by significantly increasing the number of Americans who are cured of hepatitis C.” Others have called it “the beginning of a new era in hepatitis C treatment.”*  The only down side is that the drugs are very expensive, which speaks to the profit incentive for drug manufacturers, a subject too complicated to deal with here.

The real news is that this may mean the end of Hepatitis C.  As far as my role is concerned, of course, it’s very small and I am just among the first to try it. And while the part I am playing in this revolution has some bodhisattva-like aspects, it’s not as though I took on this suffering willingly, or at least, I am not conscious of having volunteered for them.  I am pleased, eager even, to be of benefit to others, but to be honest, I could have done without all this crap.  But we don’t get to choose our sufferings. Or do we?

It is said that bodhisattvas willingly take on suffering in order to liberate all beings, but it’s also said that suffering come from negative karma resulting from past volitional acts.  Frankly, hypothesizing about the source of suffering is the kind of speculation the Buddha viewed as unprofitable.  It will not relieve my pain to know where it came from.

This recent breakthrough has helped to relieve my mind, though.  What I regarded as a sort of lonely, annoying austerity that was happening to me while I was busy making other plans has now gotten a small dose of meaning and purpose.  Now, I feel intimately connected to the sufferings of the some 170 million people worldwide who have this virus and all those who will get it in the future.  I feel that I can truly regard their suffering as my own.

Just because the bodhisattva teachings say you should take the suffering of others as your own, doesn’t mean that is an easy thing to accept.  There are times when you need something like this to help you remember what the teachings are all about.

For some time now, my daily practice has been centered around meditating on the Healing Buddha and chanting the Healing Buddha mantra.  This practice begins with a determination to become a Healing Buddha, to become like sovereign medicines and drugs that benefit others.  I am just beginning to absorb the profound meaning of this.

If wisdom can be received by the body, imperishable by perishable, pure by impure, then it is received by me. Thus having abandoned self let him follow the good of all creatures, like an image of the Healing Buddha, not thinking of worldly things. Let him apply his own knowledge to the service of all creatures; having duly guarded his wealth, let him use it for all creatures. One must produce the suffering which expels much suffering in oneself or another, and also that which produces much happiness.”

Tathagata-guhya Sutra

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* http://www.gilead.com/news/press-releases/2013/12/us-food-and-drug-administration-approves-gileads-sovaldi-sofosbuvir-for-the-treatment-of-chronic-hepatitis-c

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“You Don’t Buy Love For Nothing.”

Beat writer William S. Burroughs was born on this day in 1914.  Here is a graphic with the poem I wrote on August 2, 1997, the day Burroughs died.

William S. Burroughs/Poem

Burroughs is the subject of a new biography, Call Me Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles. Michael Dirda in his Washington Post review of the book says that Burroughs “even now remains one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.”

Burroughs was a seriously demented character . . . but he loved cats. He once wrote, “The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself. Of course he wants care and shelter. You don’t buy love for nothing.”

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The Way Followed by the Mind

Chih-i, founder of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school, was one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers. Some have put him on a par with Nagarjuna and I would agree but add that at least in the beginning Chih-i was merely attempting to clarify Nagarjuna’s philosophy for a Chinese audience. During the time I spent practicing Nichiren Buddhism I developed an abiding interest in Chih-i’s work, since Nichiren viewed Chih-i as his spiritual ancestor and incorporated the T’ien-ta’i teachings into his own system.

Lately, I’ve been studying a section of Neal Donner’s 1976 translation of Mo-ho Chih Kuan, Chih-i’s monumental work on Buddhist practice. Donner renders the title of Chih-i’s work as “Great Calming and Contemplation”, while the Thomas Cleary translation has it as “Great Stopping and Seeing”, which I prefer.* In the Nichiren traditions (most of which reject the mode of practice Chih-i explains in the text) it is known as “Great Concentration and Insight” (Jpn. Maka Shikan).

In any case, the Mo-ho Chih Kuan was one of the most important non-Indian works of Mahayana Buddhism, influencing the development of the Ch’an (Zen) meditation, as well as practices in other traditions. It was actually the first comprehensive meditation manual written by a Chinese Buddhist, although to say that Chih-I “wrote” this work is a bit of a misnomer, for it was compiled from his lectures after his death.

The section I have been studying deals with bodhicitta, a subject I have blogged about on several occasions in recent months. Bodhicitta, the “thought of awakening”, is the aspirational wish to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings. It’s the first step in the bodhisattva path.

According to Donner, the Mo-ho Chih Kuan essentially charts “the progress of the religious practitioner from the first arising of the thought of enlightenment (bodhicitta) – when he realizes the possibility of Buddhahood within himself – to the final absorption into the indescribable Ultimate Reality, beyond all teaching, beyond all thought.”

At the beginning of the section on bodhicitta, Chih-i defines the term: “bodhi [awakening] is here (in China) called the Way” while citta “is here called ‘mind’, that is, the cognitive mind.” Donner says “Chih-i understands the bodhicitta as ‘the Way followed by the mind’” and translates the complete term bodhicitta-utpada (utpada = ‘production’) as “arousing the great thought,” while Thomas Clearly in his translation uses “awakening the great mind.”

Buddhist practice is aimed at the transformation of sufferings into nirvana. Traditionally, a crucial first step in practice is the taking of vows (vrata) which are said to form tendencies opposite of those that bind us to hard-to-eliminate negative thought patterns and habits that produce suffering.

If action is dependent upon intention, then we can counter negative patterns with purer intentions, the purest of all being the wish to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings, the essence of bodhicitta or the “thought of awakening.”

The first instant of thought in which a person conceives of the desirability of attaining awakening for the sake of others is identical with awakening itself. Chih-i says, “Even a beginning practitioner becomes a refuge for the world” if he or she understands the profound meaning of bodhicitta.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Once generated, the subsequent determination to actualize the thought that nurtures the aspiration sets in motion the conditions that make it possible for positive tendencies to be strengthened and negative ones to be lessened. The seeds of negative potentialities reside deep within the consciousness, and it is from there, the depths of the mind, that a new concentrated thought pattern, bodhicitta, is aroused, starting the process through which we transform sufferings into nirvana for both self and others.

Chih-i says,

We call bodhicitta the “cause and condition for awakening because it is through this as a cause that sentient beings come to experience the Buddha, and it is through this as a condition that a response is aroused toward them in the Buddha.”

Chih-i may or may not have had an external, eternal Buddha in mind; however, we can understand this as referring to Buddha-nature. Bodhicitta is the cause that awakens the Buddha-nature within, and constantly arousing this wish to realize awakening for one’s self and others is the condition that enables Buddha-nature to reach full maturity.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that in this modern age only the Tibetan traditions focus seriously on bodhicitta. This seems a shame, since it was an all-important concept for such great Buddhist thinkers including not only Chih-i, but also Nagarjuna and Shantideva, all of whom offered teachings that resonate with us today. The “thought of awakening” should be easily embraceable in this present time of reason because it is a non-metaphysical concept, as the Dalai Lama, who frequently teaches on bodhicitta, explains,

Bodhicitta or the altruistic aspiration to attain Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings is a state of mind which cannot be cultivated or generated within one’s mental continuum simply by praying for it to come into being in one’s mind. Nor will it come into existence by simply developing the understanding of what that mind is. One must generate that mind within one’s mind’s continuum.”

In other words, it’s not magic. Bodhicitta is the mind that follows the Way by working at it.

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* Neal Arvid Donner, The Great Calming and Contemplation of Chih-i, Chapter One: The Synopsis, The University of British Columbia, 1976; Thomas Cleary, Stopping and Seeing, A Comprehensive Course in Buddhist Meditation by Chih-i, Shambala Publications Inc., 1997

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