The Pendulum of Life

If you’ve been on Google today then you have seen their interesting graphic of Leon Foucault’s Pendulum, saluting the physicist’s birth on this date 194 years ago.

One of my favorite places in Los Angeles is the Griffith Observatory, which I really think should be named the James Dean Memorial Observatory in honor of the fact that Rebel Without A Cause was shot there, but that’s beside the point, which is that one of the treasures of the observatory is the Foucault Pendulum in the Rotunda.

Foucault Pendulum at Griffith Observatory (
Foucault Pendulum at Griffith Observatory (

The pendulum has been a feature at the observatory since it opened in 1935, and it’s one of the largest pendulums in the world.  The device demonstrates the rotation of the Earth. It has a 240-pound brass ball, suspended by a cable 40 feet long, that swings in the same direction all the time. To an observer it appears that the ball changes direction, but it’s actually the earth that is moving. Every eight minutes the ball knocks over a dowel to illustrate the rotation.

Now, everyone knows that the Earth rotates once in about 24 hours. But that is from the point of view of the sun. From the point of view of the stars, it’s once every 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds. And what you may not know is that the Earth’s rotation is slowing down. That means days are longer than they were in the past. Because of Los Angeles’ latitude, the rotation time for the Foucault Pendulum at the Griffith Observatory is 42 hours.

Recently, I blogged about Soyen Shaku, the first Zen master to visit the West. In 1906 he wrote a piece called “The Pendulum of Life”:

[People] want to live, and they do not know that their living is really their death. This contradiction causes them an immeasurable amount of suffering. Apparently they are living, that is, they are moving bodily in the world of contrasts and opposites, of pleasures and pains, of sorrows and joys, of good and evil; and yet they want to escape from this actual state of things, they want to enter into a region where they have only monotony, stagnation, and abeyance, and even extinction. For are they not trying to keep the pendulum of life always up on one side only? The pendulum owes its existence to a constant swinging from one side to the other. When this is stopped, it ceases to be itself and exists no more. To live is to move, to change, to walk up and down, to come in and out, to enjoy and to suffer, to -smile and to weep. To refuse to do so is simply courting death.”

This reminds me of the famous quote by Norman Cousins that the greatest tragedy is when something inside of you dies while you’re still living. Cousins was a American journalist who fought heart disease by taking large doses of Vitamin C and laughing. He claimed that Marx Brothers movies were a key factor in his healing, and he was no quack, but rather served for a time as Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities for the UCLA School of Medicine. Another way to describe his struggle is to say that he beat death by learning how to live.

What Soyen Shaku meant when he wrote that so many people court death is that they don’t know how to live. And what Buddha meant when he taught that life is suffering was that there is a undeniable quality of suffering in life, a malaise, an ill-ness, and that its cause is that we live the wrong way, for the wrong things. We often feel we are seeking enjoyment, happiness, but the things that we think will make us happy, bring pain and unhappiness in the long run.

Bust of James Dean at Griffith Observatory
Bust of James Dean at Griffith Observatory

Later in his piece, Soyen Shaku says, “Life, according to Buddhism, is worth living, because it enables us to do something.” Is this “something” merely to live fast and die before our time like James Dean? Or to learn to live while we are alive?

There is suffering, and there is happiness, too. The Buddhist way of life is to cling to neither suffering nor happiness, to be like Foucault’s Pendulum, without changing direction in our plane of swing between the two extremes. Through the practice of equanimity, the state of psychological stability, we can learn to remain undisturbed by life’s rotations.

Evidently, the gunman in Monday’s Navy Yard rampage was a convert to Buddhism. His last known residence was in Fort Worth, TX where he shared a place with the owner of a restaurant whom he’d met at a nearby Thai Buddhist temple. According to the roomate, the gunman spent a great deal of time at the temple “meditating and chanting.”

It’s tempting to speculate on the depth of his Buddhist practice, to wonder if the teachers at his temple had ever mentioned equanimity. I doubt it would have made any difference. The gunman was a pendulum swinging wildly and his psychological problems were so severe that he needed the kind of help that only professionals can provide. We may never know exactly what was in this man’s mind, but it seems that such individuals reach a point where they feel there is nothing left for them except to kill others and be killed.

For the rest of us, or most of us at least, we can do something else, we can learn to live while we are alive.


Out of the Halls of Vapor and Light

“But I still hear them walking in the trees; not speaking. Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills . . .”

– Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

September 11: the day the world changed. Some might say that is an exaggeration, that many of the consequences we associate with the 2001 attacks would have taken place anyway. Regardless, the day stands as a dark symbol of how our world has been transformed in so many ways. And none of it seems for the better.

Last year, as the United Stated commemorated the day, for the first time no special security alert was issued. However our embassy in Cairo was mobbed by protesters angry over a disgusting film that mocked Islam. In Benghazi, our consulate was attacked by terrorists. Four Americans died and another bloody symbol was born.

On this September 11th, I would like to focus on another form of symbolism, a different sort of event, one that took place 120 years ago. It was on this date in 1893 that the World Parliament of Religions convened in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Held over the course of 17 days, the Parliament was organized by a “wide spectrum of Protestant and Unitarian leaders, many of whom sought to demonstrate that the world’s religions affirmed the unity of humankind and that Christianity, ultimately, had the unique capacity to embrace this unity.” *

It was also first formal meeting between representatives of Eastern and Western religions and spiritual traditions. And, as far as I know, the first time teachers in the Japanese Buddhist traditions of Zen, Tendai, and Shingon had come to the West.

The legacy of this conference is perhaps negligible. As Richard H. Seager has written, the Parliament was an event “quickly banished from our collective memory.” ** Yet, the meeting of the twain between East and West makes it significant.

Japanese delegation.

The Japanese Buddhist delegation consisted of Soyen Shaku  (Zen), Ashitsu Jitsuzen (Tendai), Tori Horyu (Shingon), Yatsubuchi Banryu (Jodo Shinshu), and two laymen, Hirai Kinzo and Noguchi Zenshiro. I believe the only other Buddhist in attendance was H. Dharmapala, representing Sri Lanka.

All the members of the Japanese delegation were nationalists who were sympathetic towards Japan’s growing military madness, except Hirai Kinzo, who unfortunately wasted his speech at the conference trying to explain the Japanese position toward Christianity and defending  persecution of Christians during the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

For me, the most interesting presentations delivered by the Japanese Buddhists were from Soyen Shaku,  a 33 year old Roshi in the Rinzai tradition.  He prepared a speech, “The Law of Cause and Effect, as Taught by Buddha” translated into English by one of his students, a young man named D. T. Suzuki and delivered by one of the event organizers, John Henry Barrows on the 8th day of the conference, Sept. 18. Another eight days later on Sept. 26, Soyen Shaku presented another speech, this one entitled “Arbitration Instead of War.”

Soyen Shaku’s relationship with war was complicated. Some ten years after the conference, he served as a chaplain to the Japanese army during the Russo-Japanese War, and seemingly gave his full support to the aims of that conflict. The shift from advocating “universal brotherhood” to the adoption of a position that justified war from a Buddhist viewpoint is troubling. But also a subject for another post.

It is reasonable to assume that his words from “Arbitration Instead of War” in 1893  were sincere, and taken in that spirit they seem especially fitting for this September 11 in 2013:

Why does war take place? Is there no alternative but to appeal to swords? What excuse can there be? Why should men fight and kill each other over things that do not concern them? The nature of war is not acceptable at all. And why? Because it is only the ambition of a few men disturbing the social peace, the social order, against the course of truth. How great a story of dreadful wars and battles that have been fought in the world does history tell us? The perusal of those barbarous records is enough to make the blood of those who love truth, peace, and fraternity tingle and shut the book with a crying sigh!

And now we have international law which has been very successful in protecting the nations from each other and has done a great deal toward arbitration instead of war. But can we hope that this system shall be carried out on a more and more enlarged scale, so that the world will be blessed with the everlasting, glorious, bright sunshine of peace and love instead of the gloomy, cloudy weather of bloodshed, battles, and wars?

And what is gained by war? Nothing; it only means the oppression of the weak by the strong; it simply means the fighting among brothers and the shedding of human blood. The stronger gains nothing while the weaker loses everything. We very often say that we are brothers, but what a troublesome brotherhood it is where one has to be armed well against the other . . .

We are not born to fight one against another. We are born to enlighten our wisdom and cultivate our virtues according to the guidance of truth. And, happily, we see the movement toward the abolition of war and the establishment of a peace-making society . . . It is the duty of religion and of truth to attain this beautiful project of brotherhood, and is it not our duty to become the nucleus and motive power of this great plan? It is, and we must be that nucleus and power.

We must not make any distinction between race and race, between civilization and civilization, between creed and creed, and between faith and faith. You must not say “go away” because we are not Christians. You must not say ” go away because we are yellow people. All beings on the universe are in the bosom of truth. We are all sisters and brothers; we are sons and daughters of truth, and let us understand one another much better and be true sons and daughters of truth. Truth be praised!”

From Walter R. Houghton, ed., Neely’s History of The Parliament of Religions and Religious Congresses at the World’s Columbian Exposition, F. T. Neely, Chicago, 1894

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* At the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, The Pluralism Project, Harvard University.

** Richard H. Seager, The World’s Parliament of Religions: The East/West Encounter, Chicago, 1893 (Religion in North America), Indiana University Press, 2009.