We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet . . .

I heard someone say on television this week that 2016 was a gut punch.  I believe he meant the hell of the election, and the torture of it’s aftermath.  Or, maybe he was referring to the number of notable deaths we’ve experienced.  For me, the year started with the death of my father.  A punch that keeps on pounding.  And my father’s best friend, my uncle, passed away…  Now, before I get all maudlin here…

Let me say that I’ve never felt too sentimental about the New Year.  I don’t care what year it is really, it’s just a number, a change in the calendar.  That’s not to say I haven’t done my fair share of partying on New Year’s Eve.  On many of those nights, I’ve heard the same song sung after the stroke of midnight, and I’ve sung along, not even remembering what Auld Lang Syne means.

It means ‘for old times’ sake.’  It’s Scottish and the entire world knows this tune.  But not the original tune.

When Scot poet Robert Burns put the lyrics together in 1788, he sent them to the Scots Musical Museum with a note that read, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.”

Robert Burns (1759-1796) is Scotland’s National Bard, a poet and lyricist associated with the Romantic literary movement.  You may know some of his famous poem/songs, such as “A Red Red Rose,” “Tam o’ Shanter, and “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.”  While poetry was his primary occupation and he was Scottish by birth, I suspect he may have had a wee bit of the Irish in him, for his other two passions in life were drinking and chasing women.  He died very young, following a dental extraction at age 37.

As Burns mentioned in his note, “Auld Lang Syne” is an old song; in fact, he probably took the first verse from an earlier piece “Old Long Syne.”  The rest of the lyrics are thought to be Burn’s own composition.  However, the melody that we know so well is not the melody Burns used.  A few months ago, I stumbled upon the original melody, and I prefer it.  It seems more tender, and haunting.  And it has awakened my interest and appreciation in the song.

Here is “Auld Lang Syne” sung with Burn’s melody by Paolo Nutinia, a Scottish singer, songwriter.  Below the video are Robert Burns’ lyrics.   You’ll also see the original manuscript of “Auld Lang Syne” penned by Burns on December 7, 1788. which you can click to view in a larger size.

Thank you for for reading The Endless Further.  Regardless of what the new year means to you, let us all take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne…

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
Sin’ auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo . . .

So here’s a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo . . .


Dashiell Hammett and the Tao of Beams Falling

Some of you may know the name Dashiell Hammett, one of the originators of the hardboiled school of detective fiction.  I am sure most all of you have heard of his most famous work, The Maltese Falcon.

Sam Spade, a private detective, gets involved with a group of murderous characters in search of a “dingus,” a black bird: The Maltese Falcon, a priceless jewel-encrusted statue, presented to the Knights Templar, along with the island of Malta, by Charles V of Spain, lost for centuries.  With this story, Hammett presented us with one of the greatest plots in mysterydom.

In Chapter 7, Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale of the novel, a story about a man named Flitcraft.   The man lived in Tacoma, and one day while strolling around during his lunch hour, he narrowly missed being hit by a falling beam from a construction site.  If the beam had struck him, it would have killed him.  Spade says this left Flitcraft feeling “like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”  Chaos had entered his comfortable world, and he concluded that life was merely a matter of chance.  “What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life.”  Flitcraft left his job, his wife and children, and he set out to wander aimlessly.

George Cotkin, in Existential America, remarks that “Here we have Hammett’s take on the human condition.  Men and women sleepwalk through existence, clutching at illusions and complacency.  When the natural cracks in an existential moment, the potential for freedom, for a new birth, opens up.”

Cotkin’s explanation fits because the theme of The Maltese Falcon is illusion.  I would go into that more but I would hate to give out any spoilers for those who have not read the book or seen the movie.

Years later when Mrs. Flitcraft hires Spade to find her long lost husband, the detective discovers that he has settled down once again, this time in Spokane, living a similar life to the one he left behind.  He had a new job, new family, and name,  Charles Pierce (a reference to Charles Stanley Pierce, a nineteenth century philosopher who wrote about “random occurrence”).

Spade tells Brigid, “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Flitcraft’s wandering is a reaction to the capriciousness of fate.  But I think Spade is using the story to tell Brigid that regardless of whether or not she is being straight with him, in the end it will not matter, he will adjust, and he won’t play the sap for her.  In this way, Sam Spade, the iconic private detective, is like the Taoist sage who moves through life in boundless freedom, exuding wisdom, secure in the knowledge that beams falling, and not falling, is the natural order of things.

Adjusting is not the same as complacency, or “settling.”  Lao Tzu says that the sage avoids complacency, and yet does not try to make things happen.  The sage allows things to happen by themselves, and “helps the people find their own nature, while refraining from action.”

Life is series of happenings.  When we resist what happens, we open the door to problems.  So then, all this to say, let things flow naturally and go with that flow.

Dashiell Hammett was not the best writer of detective stories, but perhaps the most influential.  His innovation was to take murder out of the drawing room and put it back on the streets where it belonged.  He became about as successful a writer as one could be.  Then, with the years of money and success in Hollywood were behind him, he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to jail.  He was 57 years old and emerged from imprisonment, according to his partner Lillian Hellman, “a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker.”  But he had survived.  He adjusted to beams falling.

By the way, TCM is showing The Maltese Falcon today at 6:15pm EST (3:15 PST).  This superb version directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, is extremely faithful to Hammett’s novel.  I consider it the first film noir and probably the best detective movie ever made.

If you miss this viewing, it might show up on TCM On Demand.


Inner Peace on Earth

“Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”  How many times have we seen and heard this sentiment . . .

It comes from the New Testament, a scene known as “The Annunciation to the shepherds,”  where angels come to a group of shepherds to tell them of the birth of Jesus.  After their announcement, the angels proclaim glory to God “in the highest” and on earth peace and goodwill.  The phrase we are familiar with differs slightly from the various Biblical translations, and was first popularized for Christmas in carols written during the 18th century, and then on about a billion greeting cards.

For most of us, peace on earth means “world peace,” a state of international friendliness, the end of war.  World peace is not yet at hand, and with each act of violence, whether on the streets of Berlin or in Chicago, this lofty goal seems to slip further and further from our grasp. Some people reasonably question if peace on earth is even possible.

However, in another sense, peace on earth is already here. If you are able to achieve a degree of inner peace then this is peace on earth.  In Peace is Every Step, the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says,

“Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see.  The question is whether or not we are in touch with it.  We don’t have to travel far away to enjoy the blue sky.  We don’t have to leave our city or even our neighborhood to enjoy the eyes of a beautiful child.  Even the air we breathe can be a source of joy.”

We don’t have to wait until Christmas, or any other time, to unwrap peace on earth.  To paraphrase John and Yoko’s anti-war mantra, peace is here . . . if you want it.

“Good will toward men” means compassion.  Buddhism teaches that inner peace is the root of compassion, and if we experience inner peace, we should naturally want to share it with others.

For example, the Dharma-sangiti Sutra reads,

“When one has grasped the fact, that this ‘great essence of inward peace’ for oneself as for one’s neighbors, has as its real meaning the avoidance of pain (such as infinite suffering) and the full attainment of joy in this world, one must cherish enthusiasm through a eagerness for it; even as a man shut up in a burning house longs for cool water.”

So then, I do not wish you peace on earth.  Instead, may you, and me, all of us, have a real eagerness for peace.

“The development of a kind heart (a feeling of closeness for all human beings) does not involve the religiosity we normally associate with conventional religious practice.  It is not only for people who believe in religion, but is for everyone regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation. It is for anyone who considers himself or herself, above all, a member of the human family and who sees things from this larger and longer perspective. This is a powerful feeling that we should develop and apply; instead, we often neglect it . . .”

– Tenzin Gyatsu, 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, A Human Approach to World Peace


Te Deum

Te Deum is an early Christian hymn often attributed to St. Ambrose, the songwriting bishop of Milan in the fourth century.  The title comes from the opening line, Te Deum laudamus (“Thee, O God, we praise”).

This hymn is associated with New Year’s Eve because those who recite it on the last day of the year can receive a plenary indulgence, in which God forgives the sinner and removes all punishment.  I don’t believe you get it directly from Her (or Him), but from the Catholic Church, and there is a condition attached, that the person who receives it must maintain a state of grace or non-attachment to sin.

Te Deum is also wonderful little poem by Charles Reznikoff (1894 – 1976).  He was a lawyer and legal editor, who as a poet spent most of his career in obscurity, until New Directions put out a collection of previously published poems in 1962, when he was 68.

Reznikoff was associated with William Carlos Williams and Objectivist movement.  He wrote in a spare style that I like.

Te Deum

Not because of victories
I sing,
having none,
but for the common sunshine,
the breeze,
the largess of the spring.

Not for victory
but for the day’s work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.

To me, this poem is not a hymn of praise to God.  I feel Reznikoff is expressing admiration for the commonplace, for daily life, a simple poem celebrating the simplicity of the natural.  Another way of interpreting it, though, is that he saw God everywhere in the everyday world, or as the everyday world. Well, maybe it is praise to God after all.

Reznikoff’s parents were Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States.  Much of his work examined Jewish faith, and Jewish life in America, particularly the experience of emigrants in the tenements of New York city.  Buddhists do not share the beliefs of the Abrahamic religions.  In the literature you will see the word “divine,” (as in the Buddha’s Divine Eye), but it shouldn’t be taken to imply that it emanates from some godly source.  Strip the dharma of all the mystical verbiage and you find teachings genuinely rooted in the soil of everyday life.

A quote I’ve shared before from Hui-neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an school:

The dharma is to be found in this world and not in another. To leave this world to search for the dharma is as futile as searching for a rabbit with horns.”

Dharma in Buddhism usually refers to the teachings, but can also mean the truth, or reality.


The Blind Man and the Sun

After I prepared today’s post, I realized it is more or less a continuation of the theme of my last post.  I apologize if I am being redundant . . .

Su Shi (1037-1101), aka Su Dongpo was a writer, poet, artist, and calligrapher, of the Song Dynasty.  He often criticized the government in political essays, in particular he wrote against the government monopoly on the salt industry.  For this, he was sent into exile, banished to Huangzhou where he was assigned a modest government post with no pay.

Many of his essays were essentially parables, such as the one below.  “The Blind Man and the Sun”  was used by Albert Einstein to illustrate the average person’s understanding of his theory of relativity.

The blind man had never seen the sun.  He would ask people what the sun was like.  One person told him, “It’s shape is like a copper platter.”  The blind man struck a copper platter and listened to the sound.  Some days afterward, he heard the sound of a bell and he thought it was the sun.  Someone else said, “Sunlight is like a candle.  The blind man felt a candle, and concluded the sun was the same shape as the sun.  Later  he held a flute in his hand and thought it was a sun.

The sun is quite different from a bell or a flute, but the blind man could not tell their difference because he had never seen the sun.  Truth is harder to see than the sun, and when people do not know it they are exactly like the blind man. Even if you do your best to explain by analogies and examples, it is still like the analogy of the copper platter and the candle. From what is said of the copper platter, one imagines a bell, and from what is said about a candle, one imagines something else.  In this way, one gets ever further and further away from the truth.  Those who speak about the Way (Tao) will give it a name according to what they happen to see, or imagine what it is like without seeing it.  These are mistakes in the effort to understand the Way.

The Tao Te Ching begins with these words, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

This applies to not only the Tao but also Buddha-dharma, God, the absolute truth –  because we feel compelled to try and capture with concepts and words things that are ultimately ineffable, we lead ourselves into error.  Concepts, names and so on are mere labels, conventional designations, and they are empty.

Blindness can also be used as a metaphor for the inability to see the truth or things as they truly are.  This kind of blindness is not caused by diseases of the eye.  Often, the primary cause is ignorance.  To be “visually impaired” in this way can also be a choice.  I’m sure most of you remember the line in John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever, “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see . . .”

Sometimes it takes great effort to open our eyes and see.

– – – – – – – – – –

Parable of “The Blind Man and the Sun” adapted from the version by Lin Yutang in The Wisdom of China and India, The Modern Library, 1942