Short Takes – End of May Edition

• Only last month, I featured Maya Angelou in a post for National Poetry Month. Now, she has passed away at the age of 86. Here is her obituary at the LA Times and an appreciation at the Washington Post.

• The Wall Street Journal reports that “In this interconnected global world, the leaders of other countries are more of a known entity then they were just a decade ago. In looking at how Americans feel about 16 leaders, the most striking thing is that the only two leaders whom a majority of U.S. adults have good opinions of are not leaders of countries, per se, but rather spiritual leaders. Three-quarters (76%) have a good opinion of Pope Francis, up from three in five (61%) who had a good opinion of him in May, 2013, right after he assumed the papacy. Over two-thirds (68%) have a good opinion of the Dalai Lama, up from 64% who said so last May.”

Pope Francis does have his detractors, or, skeptics. For instance, the head of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests says Pope Francis’s plan to meet with abuse victims looks like “a public relations ploy.”

• John Fund at the National Review Online writes that Norway’s government caved in to pressure from China and snubbed the Dalai Lama during his visit to Norway earlier this month.

• Recently a Buddhist temple/center opened up just a few blocks from my home. I have long wanted to have a place close by where I could pop in and meditate with others. This place adversities itself as “modern Buddhism,” which I find appealing. However, it belongs to the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). They charge money to sit with them. And, they are involved in the Dorje Shugden controversy. So, that means I will not be popping in. I’ve said previously that I share the Dalai Lama’s position on this matter.

While in Norway, the Dalai Lama had to contend with ongoing demonstrations by pro-Shugden supporters, and he had this to say about it: “We’re Buddhists and the Buddha advised us not to take refuge in ordinary deities and spirits. The demonstrators say I’ve banned this practice, but that’s not so, I haven’t and the monasteries associated with Shugden in South India are evidence of this.”

Here is the Statement of the Deutsche Buddhistische Ordensgemeinschaft (DBO, German Buddhist Monastic Association) on the Protests against the Dalai Lama by the International Shugden Community (ISC)

• At the BBC, Dr Andrew Skilton weighs in on “Why is Buddhism so hip?”

• Ray Bradbury on Zen and the Art of Writing (1973).

• Speaking of Bradbury . . . you are probably familiar with the 1972 Elton John song “Rocket Man,” composed by John and his long-time writing partner Bernie Taupin. It’s one of Elton John’s biggest hits and the lyrics were inspired by a Ray Bradbury short story by the same name. Taupin has also acknowledged that his words were inspired by another song called “Rocket Man,” and also based on the Bradbury short story. This “Rocket Man” was released by one of my favorite groups of the 1960s, Pearls Before Swine on their 1970 album The Use of Ashes. Here is their “Rocket Man” written by Tom Rapp.


Farewell Summer: Death of A Peerless Storyteller

Ray Bradbury, one of the true masters of science fiction (or fiction period) has died. He was 91. He passed away here in Los Angeles, after what is described by his family as “a lengthy illness”.

Many years ago when I worked at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, each morning before reporting for duty I would stop at a delicatessen called Dave’s Table on the corner of N. Beverly Drive and Wilshire (it’s not there anymore-the deli, that is). Often Ray Bradbury would come in around the same time and get a cup of coffee and maybe a croissant or a bagel to go. I think he had an office in the building next door. No matter what the weather, he always wore the same thing: a pull-over sweater and white tennis shorts. He had these pasty pink and white legs that never tanned. Frankly, if I had been him, I would have thought about wearing pants, but that was his business. I never spoke to him, but I always wanted to (not about the shorts, of course).

In a 2010 CNN interview, Bradbury described himself as a “delicatessen religionist.” I guess he was really into delicatessens. He told the interviewer that he was inspired by both Eastern and Western religions. But he added,

I’m a Zen Buddhist if I would describe myself. I don’t think about what I do. I do it. That’s Buddhism. I jump off the cliff and build my wings on the way down.”

I rather doubt he was a practicing Zen Buddhist. By that I mean someone who engages in regular meditation. But you never know. He did write a book called Zen in the Art of Writing, but it was more about the latter than the former.

As much as Ray Bradbury’s mind soared to other worlds, he had feet firmly planted in the town that he loved, Los Angeles. He’d lived here since the 1930’s and in his interviews it was always great to hear him talk about “old” L.A. and describe things that aren’t around anymore.

Ray Bradbury was an immensely influential writer in the science fiction field. His novels included, The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. You can read about his life and work at Wikipedia.

There was a time, when I was a kid, summer meant three months of no school. I would spent most of that time reading. For some reason, those warm, carefree months seemed just right for science fiction, and I remember that for several summers in a row I read nothing but Robert Heinlein, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and of course, Ray Bradbury.

There are those days which seem a taking in of breath which, held, suspends the whole earth in its waiting. Some summers refuse to end.

– Bradbury in Farewell Summer

Thanks for those endless summers, Ray.


“We burn them to ashes and then burn the ashes.”

When I worked at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, each morning before I went in, I’d visit this snack shop called Dave’s Table to get a cup of coffee to go. It was on the corner of Wilshire and Beverly. This was the early ’80s and I think it’s gone now. Anyway, I stopped in pretty much the same time every day, and there was another guy who would be there every day around the same time for the same thing. He was a bit past middle age, had white hair, wore thick black glasses, and rain or shine, hot or cold, it seemed he always wore white tennis shorts. He was Ray Bradbury, a writer, primarily of speculative fiction.

I guess he had an office around the corner. I never spoke to him. I wanted to, but you don’t do that in Beverly Hills. The first time I saw him in Dave’s Table, I happened to be reading one of his books, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which had just been turned into a film. What an coincidence. I was tempted to bring the book with me in the following days and ask him to sign it. But you don’t do that in Beverly Hills. It’s supposed to be like a safe haven. If you approach celebrities to ask for an autograph or even just to tell them what a big fan you are, people will give you strange looks. They’ll think that you’re a weirdo, or even worse, a tourist.

In 1966, the great French Director Francois Truffaut made a film from another of Bradbury’s novels, Fahrenheit 451. It’s about Guy Montag, a fireman who lives in a future society where all books have been banned. It’s Montage’s job to destroy them. Fahrenheit 451, he tells us, “is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and starts to burn.”

It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it.

Guy Montag: Well, it’s a job just like any other. Good work with lots of variety. Monday, we burn Miller; Tuesday, Tolstoy; Wednesday, Walt Whitman; Friday, Faulkner; and Saturday and Sunday, Schopenhauer and Sartre. We burn them to ashes and then burn the ashes. That’s our official motto.

Burning books is a pretty radical thing to do and sometimes you need some encouragement.

The Captain: Go on, Montag, all this philosophy, let’s get rid of it. It’s even worse than the novels. Thinkers and philosophers, all of them saying exactly the same thing: “Only I am right! The others are all idiots!”

What’s wrong with books?

Guy Montag: Books make people unhappy, they make them anti-social.

Damn straight. Evil things, books.

Some months before the film of Fahrenheit 451 was released, John Lennon made his famous statement about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus. It was taken completely out of context, but an uproar was raised about it anyway. As a result, radio stations (mostly in the south) banned Beatles music and huge rallies held where young people stomped on Beatles records and Beatles merchandize were thrown into bonfires.

Nazi book burning 1933

Which just goes to prove that stuff like burning books is really effective. Sure put an end to the Beatles, didn’t it?

In 1821, the German-Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine said, “Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.”

The Nazi’s started burning books in 1933. Shortly after that, they started burning Jews.

I don’t have very much interest in monotheistic religions, and there are some aspects of Islam, in particular, that I find extremely disagreeable. However, this idea to burn the Quran on Saturday is even more disagreeable, and I suspect that the most readers of this blog agree, so it’s not really necessary to list all the reasons why it’s wrong.

One thing I will point out is that in this country, Americans are free to burn almost anything they want. The problem is that sort of activity intrudes on another freedom, the one where we can read what we want and draw our own conclusions about the material. What’s needed is good judgment and an thorough understanding of the religious principles one is striving to uphold. It seems that this pastor in Florida is lacking in both those departments.

I have little patience for the national security mantra, which too often is used to promote fear and exploit certain situations. Now it has a new dimension. I also don’t believe that any religion is above being satirized or criticized.  So, I have a concern, although I am not sure how real it is, that we may be entering a time when societies are coerced into certain things because of real or imagined threats to national security.

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.  – Ray Bradbury

That cuts several different ways.