Another Labor Day weekend is upon us, which for many people means summer’s end, the last big barbecue of the season, back to school, so on and so forth. Unlike Memorial Day, which we mark with commemorative ceremonies and concerts, very little is done to bring our attention to the meaning of Labor Day. It is in short, a celebration of the American labor movement, and I invite you to learn about the history of the holiday by visiting this Wikipedia page.

As for this piece, it is a reworking of my 2011 Labor Day post.

To me Labor Day and Woody Guthrie are synonymous. Woody had witnessed the exploitation of workers all across the United States. The word that was synonymous with labor for him was union. Woody Guthrie was committed to the union movement. He was convinced that American workers would find justice, equality, and security if they just unionized. A little poem from Woody’s notebook reads,

Ants got unions and so’ve these bees
Bosses don’t want union for you and me

Woody spent his life supporting the labor movement by singing his songs in the migrant camps, at the union meetings, and on picket lines – but he was not there just to cajole them into organizing, he was also there to lift their spirits and to remind them of their basic humanity.

He had a unique philosophy about unions, as he did about most things. Actually, his take on this word is not surprising because Woody considered himself a student of Eastern philosophy. Joe Klein, in Woody Guthrie: A Life, wrote about how Woody formulated his concept while serving in the Merchant Marine during WWII,

Woody_Guthrie by dmriley2It began with Cisco [Houston] and Jimmy’s [Longhi] running debate on hope and mortality, and burst into full flower with a stray phrase from a shipboard chaplain one Sunday morning: ‘As a rule, any activity of the mind which tends to show us the real ‘oneness’ of all things is great.’

Woody took off from there, using the word ‘union’ as a central proposition, tracing it from Buddha to the C.I.O. in a series of letters to Marjorie [his wife]. “The Chinese called it ‘yogin’ or ‘union.’ The Indians called it ‘prana’ or ‘energy,’” he wrote, adding that every great religious leader had believed in the same unifying concept . . .”

Cisco and Jimmy, by the way, were fellow artists who enlisted in the Merchant Marines with Woody, and somehow the trio ended up shipping together and having what Woody’s website describes as “humorous, dangerous, and often moving experiences.”

Here is Woody’s great anthem to migrant workers, Pastures of Plenty:

Listen to Woody sing “Better World,” accompanied by Will Geer (Grandpa on “The Waltons”), recorded in 1944.


Loving-Kindness Supports the World

A Thai monk I know once taught me the phrase lokopatthambhika metta or “loving-kindness supports the world.”

But how? It is difficult to imagine, for the world seems supported, or certainly permeated, by darkness, evil, hatred, violence. You might think it must be a optimist/pessimist kind of thing, you know, where the glass is either half empty or half full. That’s not it, though. It is a whole other way of thinking. It’s like when John and Yoko said war is over, if you want it.

If we want it, metta or loving-kindness can be an active force. The Tevigga Sutta says,

And he lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of loving-kindness, and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, and everywhere, does he continue to pervade with a heart of loving-kindness, far-reaching, grown great, and beyond measure.”

One of the Buddha’s desires was that his disciples would truly care for other beings. The Buddha knew it is very easy to understand our own sufferings, but a real challenge to understand the sufferings of another person. He said that is the real meaning of sincerity – having empathy for the situations of others. And it is not just understanding their suffering, it’s also understanding their behavior. When we develop insight into behavior and identify with the emotions that drive behavior, it’s not so easy to judge and condemn.

But, back to the question, how does loving-kindness support the world? Perhaps we can get a clue from these words by the great teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti:

The moment you have in your heart this extraordinary thing called love and feel the depth, the delight, the ecstasy of it, you will discover that for you the world is transformed.”

Loving-kindness supports the world through transformation.


Inner Waves

If you like ambient music, you know, music that meanders, doesn’t really go anywhere . . . then you’ll love some of the music I make.  I call it ambient music, ala Brian Eno, mainly because I figure if pointless music is good enough for him, then it’s good enough for me.  I’m being a bit self-effacing here . . . actually I think this latest piece I’ve created and uploaded to my YouTube channel is pretty cool.  This is the short version.  The longer one is about 16 minutes.


The Happiness Equation

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently published a study titled “A computational and neural model of momentary subjective well-being.” In other words, researchers have developed a mathematical model for happiness.


Yes, this is an instant of happiness, reduced to arithmetic.

The study says, “Using computational modeling, we show that emotional reactivity in the form of momentary happiness in response to outcomes of a probabilistic reward task is explained not by current task earnings, but by the combined influence of recent reward expectations and prediction errors arising from those expectations.” Frankly, I have no idea what that means. But if I were to hazard a guess, I would say it probably means that happiness is somewhat dependent upon our expectations, or that happiness is determined by how we experience it.

Buddhism teaches a path to happiness but also maintains that happiness cannot be known. It’s not something we can grasp with our intellect. We can’t “know” happiness like we know a table, or a chair. It is a state of mind, a life condition. Therefore, we can experience happiness.

According to Buddhism, any experience of happiness must include all living beings. It is not an individual thing, separate from others. Shantideva said,

All happiness in this world comes from desiring the happiness of others. Why say more?

Indeed. ‘Nuff said.


“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

monks-ferguson2bYesterday, monks from the Drepung Monastery, here in the U.S. as part of the Drepung Gomang Sacred Arts Tour 2014, traveled from one of their first stops on the tour, St. Louis, to nearby Ferguson, Mo to stand in solidarity with the townspeople there in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer.

Antonio French, President of the North Campus organization, posted this short video clip of the monks.

Drepung Monastery is one of the most respected monasteries and centers of learning in Tibetan Buddhism. It is part of the Gelug school, of which the Dalai Lama is the head, founded in 1416 by one of Tsongkhapa’s main disciples, Jamyang Choge Tashi Palden (1397–1449). At one time it housed as many as 10,000 monks.

During the 1950s, the monastery was under the iron heel of the Chinese security services. Depung, along with the sister monasteries, Ganden and Sera, reestablished themselves in exile in the Karnataka state of south India.

After violence escalated during monk-led protests in March 2008, and shops and vehicles were looted and torched, trucks full of troops surrounded Drepung in Lhasa and the nearby Sera monastery. Chinese authorities expelled hundreds of Deprung monks, many residences were closed down and sealed, and severe restrictions imposed.

Watching the events in Ferguson unfold this week has been painful, troubling. While it is a complex issue, one thing seems very clear to me.

In America, there should be no mistrust of police. Yet, as President Obama pointed out yesterday, “In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement.”

Here is an example of why that is the case: Last night on CNN, Capt. Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, a central figure in the Ferguson situation, said that police could not risk their lives. But that is precisely what they are supposed to do. When a man or woman puts on a police uniform, it is like a contract between them and the public, they pledge to risk their lives to protect the lives of all citizens, innocent bystander, victim, perpetrator alike. Too often, however, police act as though they were in a Western movie. They shoot first and ask questions later. Until that attitude changes, the cycle of mistrust will keep repeating.

Sadly, Ferguson puts me in mind of this poem composed by the poet laureate of Harlem, Langston Hughes, some 63 years ago:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?