Doc Watson R.I.P & The Sunglasses of Freedom

This is a blog about Buddhism, but sometimes I drift off course to some of my other interests, like music. I love music. My musical tastes run the gambit from Al Jolson to the Clash. Although, I have to say that I’m not too crazy about classical or jazz music. That’s because they are instrumental, and I’m mainly into singers. I’d rather hear Louis Armstrong scat “Dinah” or Cyndi Lauper belt out “Shine” than listen to Rossini’s “Sinfonia Di Bologna” or “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock.

One guy whose voice I admired greatly was Doc Watson. Doc passed away on Tuesday in a North Carolina hospital at age 89. He’d been in critical condition since having colon surgery on Thursday.

He was a powerful singer, blessed with a rich baritone voice. Being a guitar picker myself, his instrumental chops were not lost on me. It was his flatpicking style that really made him a legend in American music, and influenced several generations of guitar players. Doc went blind before his first birthday. He always said that’s what caused him to turn to music. He never set out to make it big, he just wanted to be a good picker. He started playing for money in the 1940’s but it wasn’t until his performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival that he got any wide-spread attention.

I had the pleasure of seeing Doc Watson way back when he and his late son, Merle, were a team. It was a pure delight.  I regret that I did not avail myself of the opportunity to see him play more often.

You can read Doc’s obituary here at the LA Times, and if you’ve three minutes and 25 seconds to spare, you can watch Doc do Jimmie Rodger’s “Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia,” a song that showcases both his voice and guitar playing.

Now, Bob Dylan was crowned the “King” of Folk Music at Newport in 1963. Today at the White House, he was given the American equivalent of knighthood when he was awarded the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. I’m willing to bet that Bob is to the only person in the history of the medal to receive it wearing sunglasses.

Although, he is no stranger to receiving awards, I think Bob is a bit nervous at these kind of events. He probably wore the sunglasses so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact with anyone. During the ceremony, he fidgeted in his chair a lot and messed with his hair. Then when his name was called to get the award, well, you can see how he reacted in this short clip:

Doc Watson photo by Joe Giordano



Sunday afternoon two men set themselves on fire outside the historic Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, marking the first time that sort of extreme protest against Chinese repression has been enacted in the Tibetan Capitol.

When asked on a CNN program several weeks ago about the recent self-immolations, (there have been 34 in the past year), the Dalai Lama had this to say:

It seems – of course, it’s extremely sad, very sad. But this is not sort of the something new in China itself. I think in the cultural revolution, one important Chinese monastery — abbot himself burned.

And then Vietnam also you see it happen. And there are sort of cases there.

These are one way they believe non-violence. And then if things are desperate, then in sort of having other they simply to sacrifice their own life. So very sad. So now important thing is not solution that’s expressed, we are very sad. But we must think what’s caused of this so desperate situation.”

Thich Quang Duc photographed by Malcolm Browne

The image of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk, burning himself to death on June 11, 1963 has become one of the iconic images of the last 50 years. Duc was protesting Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his Roman Catholic government’s persecution of Buddhists. After Duc, five more Buddhist monks self-immolated.

Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh has always maintained that these acts were not suicide, saying “It was because of life that they acted, not because of death.”

In Vietnam, Duc is revered as a Bodhisattva, and he was inspired by the story of the Bodhisattva Medicine King in 23rd chapter of the Lotus Sutra:

Having made this offering, he arose from contemplation and reflected within himself, thus saying: ‘Though I by my supernatural power have paid homage to the Buddha, it is not as good as offering my body.’ Thereupon. . . in the presence of Buddha Sun Moon Brilliance [he] wrapped himself in a celestial precious garment, bathed in perfumed oil, and by his transcendent vow burned his own body. It’s brightness universally illuminated worlds fully numerous as the sands of eighty kotis of Ganges rivers . . . his body continued burning for twelve hundred years, after which his body came to an end.”*

I’ve always thought this story had more to do with the ideal of selflessness than it did with making offerings to the Buddha or the Lotus Sutra. I’m not sure what inspires people in Tibet to set themselves on fire, except as the Dalai Lama indicated, desperation.

Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.

– William S. Burroughs

Every age yearns for a more beautiful world. The deeper the desperation and the depression about the confusing present, the more intense that yearning.

– Johan Huizinga

*Kato, Bruno, et al, The Threefold Lotus Sutra (New York-Tokyo: Weatherhill/Kosei, 1982), 304-305


War and Remberance: Whatever Hells There Are . . .

It’s a holiday weekend here in the U.S. On Monday, we celebrate Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service.

As a Buddhist, I am against war. Even if I wasn’t a Buddhist, I’d be opposed to it, as really any person should. I was against the war in Vietnam, both Iraq wars, and had major reservations about invading Afghanistan to go after Bin Laden. World War II, on the other hand, has always seemed justified. It’s hard to imagine what this world would be like if the U.S. and the British hadn’t confronted the Axis forces.

And I have to admit that I’m pretty much a sucker for anything to do with WWII. As I kid I ate it up. I read WWII comics (Sgt. Rock and Sgt. Fury), went to WWII movies (The Great Escape, The Longest Day, Bridge on the River Kwai), and of course on TV, there was Combat! (with the late, great Vic Morrow as Sgt. Saunders). After all these years, nothing much has changed, except that these days I find stories and films about life on the home front as compelling as those set on the battlefield.

Patch of the 104th Infantry Division

My dad was in the war. He served in the 104th Infantry Division (“The Timberwolves”), under Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, AKA “Terrible Terry.”  The 104th fought in the Battle of the Bulge, participated in the fight for the bridge at Remagen, and met the Soviet Army at the River Elbe. Their motto was “Nothing in Hell can stop the Timberwolves.”

Nothing did, and while the Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle of the war, and breaking out of the Remagen Bridgehead no picnic, they hadn’t any idea what waited for them in Nordhausen, Germany. It was called Mittelbau Dora, a place that a Frenchman, Jean Mialet, described as “This is what hell must be like.” A Vernichtungslager, or extermination camp for sick prisoners. There wasn’t a gas chamber at Nordhausen, the SS just let prisoners die from starvation and a complete lack of medical care.

A soldier and a medical officer from 104th view the bodies of prisoners lying on the ground in a barracks at Nordhausen.

One can only guess at what it must have been like for a young soldier who may have never been out of his home state before to confront the terribly inhumane conditions of a place like that. I once asked my dad about it, and all he said was, “Well, we had to stand a lot of guard duty.” Actually, I suspect that very few of the soldiers got a look inside the camp. After all, the war was not yet over (Nordhausen was liberated on April 13. 1945 and the Germans didn’t surrender until April 29th) and, presumably, they had more combat ahead of them. Seeing some 5000 bodies lying scattered on the grounds in various stages of decomposition no doubt would have weighed heavily on the men’s minds and inhibited their fighting spirit.

The medic unit of the 104th struggled to save as many of the still living as they could, most of whom were just barely alive, skeleton-like, clinging to life one breath at a time amidst unbelievable filth. But it was a huge job, more than the GI’s could handle by themselves, and since speed was of the essence, they rounded up German citizens living nearby and put them to work, helping with the evacuation, hospitalization, and feeding.

My dad’s understated remark typifies the attitude of the “Greatest Generation.” They had a job to do, it was an ugly, horrible job but they did it and when it was over, they didn’t want to think about what they did and saw, much less discuss it. After the war ended, the men and women of WWII wanted to move on and get back to a normal life. After all, not only had they suffered through the years of war, but also a decade of “Great Depression” before that.

We, who are their sons and daughters, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, owe them a tremendous debt. So, on Memorial Day, as we honor those who died in America’s battles, I think it is altogether fitting that we also remember the men and women who lived through war, especially the Second World War, those who fought terrible battles for a noble cause, who witnessed scenes of unimaginable cruelty induced by ignoble aims, and then had to live with it, and even managed to reconcile with their former enemies.

They bequeathed to us a great gift, and I for one, to paraphrase a line from the film Mr. Roberts, say “Thanks for the liberty.”

In the intermediate ages of warfare they are intent upon compassion; they persuade hundreds of myriads of beings not to do harm. In the midst of great conflict, they are impartial; they approve union and reconcilement, these mighty Bodhisattvas. Whatever hells there are in the infinite fields of the Buddhas, of set purpose they go forth for the good of all beings.”

Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra


Hard Rain on a Sunday Afternoon

I'm out in that crowd somewhere . . .

It’s hard to believe it was 36 years ago yesterday that I attended my first Bob Dylan concert. It’s hard to believe Bob turns 71 today. Yes, it’s hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard rain . . .

It was on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Fort Collins, CO, the next to the last concert of the Rolling Thunder Review tour. The show featured the Alpha Band (with T. Bone Burnett), Mick Ronson, Kinky Friedman, Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan. The Rolling Thunder Revue band included violinist Scarlette Rivera, whom I met at a Dylan concert in 2002, and Bob Neuwirth, whom I’ve never met.

It was a great afternoon. Since it was the day before Bob’s birthday, the crowd sang to him, but he kept his back to us the entire time and didn’t acknowledge our birthday greetings. Iconoclast to the core.

Dylan will be awarded the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Obama on May 29th. Not a bad birthday present, although that’s not the reason he’s getting it.

12 others will also receive the Medal, including novelist Toni Morrison; former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; John Doar, a key figure in the Justice Department during the civil rights era; William Foege, who helped spread smallpox immunizations around the world; Gordon Hirabayashi, who fought Japanese-American World War Two internment; civil rights campaigner Dolores Huerta; and Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low.

That first Dylan concert (the first of many) so long ago was in a football field. We got there early, driving all the way from Omaha. They already had the stage set up and we sat in the stands for a couple of hours while they played nearly every song the Beatles ever recorded on the sound system. As soon as the curtain went up, we moved down in front of the stage where we ending up standing not far from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, though we didn’t know it at the time. After the Alpha Band’s first song, T. Bone Burnett pulled Ramblin’ Jack up onto the stage, but Jack was too drunk that day to perform.

The concert later became an album, Hard Rain, and a ABC television special. Here’s Bob and Joan singing “Railroad Boy (She Died of Love)” on that fateful day:

As an extra added attraction, so that you can get a glimpse of T. Bone Burnett and Scarlet Rivera, along with Bob’s paintings that served as back drop for the show (one of which I’ve always felt was of Bruce Springsteen), here is “One Too Many Mornings”:


Nagarjuna’s Hymns

Nagarjuna Conqueror of the Serpent (Nicholas Roerich)

Although he is best known for his complex philosophical works, there are a number of devotional pieces attributed to the incomparable Buddhist teacher, Nagarjuna (ca. 150–250 CE). These are often called “hymns,” and they were poems or songs of praise, possibly intended to be used in devotional acts.

Devotional practice in Buddhism can either be puja (“to offer”) or sadhana (“means of achievement” or “realization”). Puja is a more general term, and can be bowing, chanting, or making offerings of food, goods, incense, lamps, scriptures, or “any offering for body or mind.” Sadhana is associated with Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, and it refers to a proscribed method of ritual, usually involving visualization, set down in a text.

Many Buddhists grit their teeth at the idea of devotion in Buddhism. I think that’s because they see it as a form of worship. And it’s true that in some Buddhist traditions, worship, either venerating the Buddha as the personification of perfection and an exalted being, or as an act of faith directed toward mystical Buddha or force, is an integral part of practice.

Devotional practice does seem odd considering the Buddha discouraged veneration of himself or his relics, and I imagine he wouldn’t be too keen either about faith in fictional Buddhas. Yet, as Nyanaponika Thera once pointed out,

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the Buddha disparaged a reverential and devotional attitude of mind when it is the natural outflow of a true understanding and a deep admiration of what is great and noble.”

Devotion, then, is just another tool we can use for the cultivation of mindfulness and realization. This, I must assume, is how Nagarjuna felt, because it is difficult to picture the man who taught the emptiness of all things, going around doing a lot of bowing and veneration. Yet, that is how it must have been, for if Nagarjuna was an historical person, he certainly would have been a person of his times and its mindset, and as far as practice goes, he was part of the Buddhist mainstream.

Calling these devotional pieces “hymns” is perhaps a bit problematic in that the word implies some sort of worship. So, maybe poems or songs might be better. Yet, hymns does have a nice ring to it. Another problem is the authenticity of these pieces, as there is some doubt whether or not they are genuine works by Nagarjuna. Regardless of who composed them, the poetry, for me, lacks the power of Shantideva’s works, but they are interesting nonetheless.

Here is my version of one of the shorter devotional pieces, the Cittavajrastava. It reflects Nagarjuna’s belief that the mind is pure in its ultimate nature, and the word “purity” for him was a synonym for Nirvana. The mind is luminous, brightly shining.

Hymn to the Jewel of the Mind

Praise to one’s own mind, the jewel that ends the confusion of thoughts, and in its natural state, removes the net of delusion generated through mind alone.

Though beings invent, through their own inclinations, various gods, owing to the jewel of the mind, no god, other than liberation, can be established.

In attainment, the mind is luminous; only in mind are the five kinds of destiny, and neither the essence of bliss nor the root of suffering exist beyond the mind.

All that is seen by sentient beings, even while engaged in some meditative practices, are in the mind’s deceitful net, according to the words of he who taught the dharma of truth.

The mind, lacking imagination, caught in samsara, born from imagination, is nothing other than imagination – where there is no imagination, there is liberation.

Therefore, all beings should offer sincere praise to this mind of illumination, for it causes them to acquire the mind’s jewel, called “Sublime Illumination.”

Mind, the product of the elements, is bound to the body – when the mind is calmed, the elements are calmed, so become a strong custodian of your mind, for only when the mind is calm and pure does awakening arise.