You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

Gil Scott-Heron wrote those lyrics over forty years ago. Things have changed. The revolution is being televised.

It has been fascinating to watch the events in the Middle East unfold over the past week. Of particular interest to me is the revolution within the revolution. Up to now, with the exception of this blog, I have done my best to ignore the social networking phenomenon. I have a number of reasons, which I may go into in some future post, but this week I found myself somewhat in awe of it.

Social media has been one of the driving forces behind the uprisings, so much so that it’s prompted many commentators, such as former Mideast negotiator and Ambassador to Israel for President Clinton, Martin Indyk, to make statements such as, “You are witnessing here a 21st century revolution.” Speaking on this week’s Meet The Press, Indyk, now director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, added,  “And this has changed the whole nature of communication and organization and made it now impossible for autocratic authoritarian leaders in the Arab world to suppress the views of their people.”

I don’t know if that is overstating things or not. But this new revolution is certainly changing the face of revolution.

Some years ago, German sociologist and philosopher, Jurgen Habermas developed the concept of the “public sphere,” a space in which groups and individuals could come together to engage in discussions over matters of mutual interest.  This space within social life is separate from, yet not unconnected to, the private sphere and the “Sphere of Public Authority” or the state. Habermas maintains that one of the main functions of the public sphere is to support discourses critical of the Public Authority.

However, Habermas predicted the demise of this public sphere, and I can’t help but wonder if in considering the rise of the internet and social media whether or not he has revised his thinking. Habermas said that the demise of the public sphere is inevitable because eventually advertising replaces news and media becomes a tool of the state, thus the public sphere ceases to function in the manner originally intended. It’s true that in capitalist societies nearly everything becomes a commodity to be packaged and sold, and that in dictatorships, everything becomes a tool for totalitarian rule. However, what we have seen this week suggests that the public sphere which is social networking may be inherently resistant to any attempt to co-op or destroy it.

Is this, then, an indestructible public sphere? Consider this: On Tuesday the Twitter ‘hashtag’ #jan25 went viral, thousands of Tweets coming from the Cairo protest itself as well as observers around the world. Mubarak’s government then reacted by shutting down access to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Internet access from the country’s four major internet providers was blocked. And yet, Egyptians have been finding ways to break through.

We Rebuild” is a group that has been using landline phones, fax machines and ham radio to get messages out of the country. They’ve also been breaking the blockade by calling numbers that connect to modems available in other countries which provide access to the outside world. The “We Rebuild” group established a connection in Sweden through dial-up and an activist in the group wrote on Twitter: “When countries block, we evolve.”

Some people have used services like Tor, which reroutes a user’s traffic through a network of volunteers’ computers around the world, making it impossible to trace. Others are using Hotspot Shield, software that secures Web surfing sessions. And there have been reports of satellite modems and phones entering Egypt in order to circumvent government controlled telecommunication companies.

The rise of social media is hardly news. However, I haven’t given it much credence until now. Naturally, a debate has already begun about the actual role social media is playing. I tend to think it is significant. Mathew Ingram writes about this debate over at Gigacom, and I agree with his point that “In the end, it’s not about Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication.”

Of course, there is no question that the real fuel for this week’s events is a suppressed peoples desire to have freedom.  Here, too, I think we are seeing the impact of social media. For the first time, people around the world can get a taste of what real freedom is like, freedom of expression, as social networking opens up avenues for them to express themselves without the need to go into a physical public square, and as we have seen, it is a powerful tool for pulling people into that physical space when the time comes.

Once people get a taste of freedom, they often become insatiable.

One final note, as much as I would love for the US government to denounce Mubarak as a dictator and get out of the dictator-supporting business once and for all, I know it is not that simple or easy. I remember very well supporting the uprising in Iran against the Shah in 1979 and we all know how that turned out. There are many reasons why the US needs to tread carefully, not the least is that who governs Egypt is a matter for Egyptians to decide for themselves. Middle East peace has many underpinnings and they are all interconnected. Please resist the temptation to look at the situation in black and white and try to see the deep complexity underneath.

Mindfulness is not a comfort zone. It’s a challenge.

First, let us consider what mindfulness, that is, sitting in meditation does. Numerous studies have shown there are tangible benefits to be gained from meditation. The most recent one will be published in the Jan. 30 issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. MRI images were taken of the brains of volunteers two weeks before and after they took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.  MRI scans of a control group of people who did not participate in the course were also analyzed.

You can read the details here at Science Daily, where Sara Lazar, PhD, the study’s senior author is quoted as saying,

Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.

Specifically, the study found increase in the grey matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) in participants and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. No increases were found in the control group.

That brain structure is changed by meditation may not exactly be proof of Dogen’s maxim that “sitting is enlightenment” (“practice and enlightenment are one”, shusho-ichinyo) but just sitting certainly has verifiable and substantial benefits. These studies only confirm what many persons have known for a long time. In 1954, some fifty-seven years ago, meditation master Yin Shih Tzu wrote in Tranquil Sitting,

Meditation develops your innate energies. With practice, you can take charge of your mind and body, preventing disease before it arises. Shouldn’t everyone make an effort to learn something like this? Superficially, meditation looks easy, but if you practice without patience, determination, and a long-term sense of devotion, you will never realize its benefits.

Yin Shih Tzu alludes to the first two challenges of mindfulness. One, is simply to do it. Actually, meditation doesn’t always look easy. I can think of any number of activities that require less effort and concentration. The second challenge is to keep doing it. Not so easy either. Perhaps it is not everyone’s experience, but for me, maintaining a regular practice has at times been a real struggle.

However, the biggest challenge is to carry mindfulness in our daily life. It’s one thing to be mindful while sitting or when engaged in some dharma activity. What really matters, though, is when we are in any one of the seeming infinite irritating, frustrating, patience-testing, humor-losing, anger-provoking situations we encounter almost daily.  That’s when mindfulness really counts.

As the study cited above shows, just sitting in meditation, by itself, can naturally produce changes that help us keep our cool in stressful situations, as well as improve our ability to focus and maintain attention to whatever we’re doing; still, some active discipline is required on our part. There’s that split-second, that flash of a moment, when we make a decision to react in either a positive, neutral, or negative way. I know from my own experience that no amount of time spent on the meditation mat can aid if you have not learned the basic art of controlling your mind and emotions. Meditation helps with that, too, and that why we sometimes call it “training the mind”, and yet in the end, it’s up to us.

In the SGI they used to say, and no doubt still do, “Buddhism equals daily life.” This is the prime point of Buddhist practice. Because it’s in daily life that we confront our sufferings head on. And so, daily life is where we must overcome those sufferings. Total mindfulness.  That’s what we’re after. Or, as close to that as we can get. Daunting. Awesome.

Right meditation is not escapism; it is not meant to provide hiding-places for temporary oblivion. Realistic meditation has the purpose of training the mind to face, to understand and to conquer this very world in which we live.

Nyanaponika Thera, Power of Mindfulness

It’s important that always we make the connection between sitting and day to day activities. Daily life is the real challenge of mindfulness, and if you are like me, perhaps you’ve found that it is also where we get some of the most profound and useful realizations.

A follow up of sorts to yesterdays post, a look at another side to the situation in Burma. From the Seattle Times: As Myanmar politics ease, tourism grows.

This was sent in by Carl, a recent interview with Dan Reed, who was a popular musician that got to spend 2 hours interviewing the Dalai Lama.

From This Week: Self-immolation: A brief history

On a completely different note, Ellen sent in this from (imitating Mad Magazine since 1958), “6 Cats More Badass Than You (And Most Superheroes)”

This article from the Hindustan Times is short and I love the title: Be a lotus in life.

Hard to believe, but Clint Eastwood is 80. Don’t know why it’s hard to believe but it is. Anyway, this piece is rather long, but in it, Clint remarks on Buddhism and meditation.

I watched the state of the Union speech last night on MSNBC. Now, I like and support Barack Obama, but I have to say, I don’t care who you are, if you are going to speak for over an hour on nation-wide (hey, world-wide) television, you need to schedule some commercial breaks so that people can go to the bathroom. It just makes sense. It’s the right thing to do.

And what is with John Boehner? He always looks like he’s in pain. I’m thinking maybe, hemorrhoids?

After the speech, I watched some of the commentary. Chris Matthews said, “The music was unity.” Lawrence O’Donnell, who I just started watching recently, and who impresses me as a very smart guy, said something about the speech being so transcendent that he couldn’t figure out what it was about. Then he added, “In the end, Republicans should be happy, it [the speech] says very little.”

Perhaps the country needed a pep talk and a message of unity, but I think we also deserved a speech that had some meat. Something missing was the problem of guns. In my opinion, this is one of the most pressing issues we need to deal with, and has been for decades now. I would think that in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, the present moment would be the perfect time to have a discussion. Especially since those who will be doing most of the talking, and the deciding, should be on their best behavior for a while.

Avoiding the gun issue is a mistake. The message that I got from the President’s speech was that to win the future we need to grapple with these enduring issues. So when are we going to do something about guns? Every day that goes by where we allow people, young people especially, have easy access to dangerous weapons, we, as a country, as a society, are committing a form of murder.

In the Tao Te Ching, it says,

As for weapons – they are instruments of ill omen.
And among things there are those that hate them.
Therefore, the one who has the Way, with them does not dwell.
When the gentleman is at home, he honors the left;
When at war, he honors the right.
Therefore, weapons are not the instrument of the gentleman –
Weapons are instruments of ill omen.
When you have no choice but to use them, it’s best to remain tranquil and calm.
You should never look upon them as things of beauty.
If you see them as beautiful things – this is to delight in the killing of men.
And when you delight in the killing of men, you’ll not realize your goal in the land.

Some believe that the right to bear arms is a fundamental right, but it’s also a fundamental problem. The United States accounted for 45% of the total gun-related deaths in the 36 countries studied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1998. Between 1980 and 2006, America has had on average more than 32,000 gun deaths per year. I can’t help but think of the line in Blowin’ in the Wind: “How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died.”

except from Chapter 31, Lao-Tsu Te-Tao Ching, translated by Robert G. Hendricks

It’s been over two months since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. It dawned on me that I hadn’t heard much about how she was faring, which I interpret as a good sign, and so I decided to check the world wide web and see.

According to the BBC, Suu Kyi “has obtained internet access . . . Technicians set up wireless broadband at her home after the military government authorised an internet connection.” Suu Kyi’s assistant has reported that she had not yet used her connection because the signal is too weak, and additionally, she has also been feeling a little too unwell to try the internet. Apparently, Aung San Suu Kyi has never been online.

The military dictatorship in Burma, strictly controls internet connections and those who apply for internet service must not be involved in politics. The Indo-Asian news service reports that “Soon after her release from house arrest, the 65-year-old leader said that although she would apply for the internet permit, she would fill in the form saying that she would participate in politics.”

The Mizzima news agency has this: ‘The connection is a communication technology called McWill. But, the telephone has not been installed. With this connection, she will not be able to use voice (internet telephony). Only an internet connection has been installed. Although they told us to provide 1 MB, currently she has received 512 KB. They said they would extend the bandwidth later.  The internet installation cost at 560,000 kyat (about $560). Suu Kyi will apply for a mail4you e-mail account, which is a product of Yatanarpon Teleport and the only officially authorised e-mail account in Burma. The authorities have access to all passwords for mail4you e-mail accounts.”

In the United States, the internet is pretty much unrestricted. In this country, we do have a dictatorship, though, but it is not the government, despite what some would like to claim, it is “big business.” And for some time now, our unrestricted use of the internet has been threatened. What’s at stake is a principle called “net neutrality”, a principle applied to users access to the internet. Basically, it means that internet service providers should not discriminate between different kinds of content and applications online. It’s meant to provide a level playing field for all web sites, users and providers.

But cable and telephone companies want to charge money for easy and smooth access to Web sites, speed to run applications and download files, and permission to plug in devices. If you have a fairly fast connection presently, once these companies have their way, to keep it you will need to fork over more of your hard-earned cash or be left in the slow lane.

It’s all rather complicated. If you are unfamiliar with net neutrality or if you want to get up to speed with the latest developments, I suggest you take a look here, here and here.

Last week U.S. Senator Al Franken and Rep. Dennis Kucinich both warned of what the former describes as “a growing threat of corporate control on the flow of information in our country.”

We who live in “free” countries are  fortunate not to have the kind of restrictions on the internet that Aung San Suu Kyi is saddled with in Burma. Most of us, myself included, have a tendency to take it for granted. We should not.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Edmund Burke

I’d like to expand on some things I touched upon in yesterday’s post . . .

Language is a system of expressions used for communication. Words are our tools. They are signs, or symbols, of a meaning, but the meaning is not intrinsic and words do always serve as a sign or symbol for some referent.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered one of the leading thinkers in the 20th Century, likened language to a game, and held that meaning is dependent upon the rules used to play the game, i.e., the use of words. Because there are various uses of words, there are various rules. Within group activities, some words are used more than others are and meanings vary from group to group. For instance, in sports one hears the word “ball” a lot. The most common use of this word in sports groups is to signify the object used to play a particular kind of game. In another group, a “ball” might mean a dance.

I suppose it is logical to some individuals, based on the statements they make, that when groups, particularly religious groups, use certain words they are loaded with meanings intended to satisfy some group need beyond mere communication. This may be true to some extent, however, that should not imply that these groups are engaging in a language-game, literal or otherwise, at all times, for as Wittgenstein wrote in Philosophical Investigations, “we often compare the use of words with games, calculi with fixed rules, but cannot say that someone who is using language must be playing such a game.”

A good example is the word “mindfulness.” Within Buddhism this is a somewhat loaded word in the sense that it conveys associative meanings that are usually well-known to Buddhists. Now, this word may be overused, and at times, improperly used, but on the other hand, it represents one of Buddhism’s core principles, so its frequent use should be expected. It is unreasonable, however, to say that its overuse is due to an attempt to cloak comfort or sanctimony. While that is possible in some situations, it is absurd to suggest that it is a universal occurrence or that each time a group uses a certain word the intent is simply to make the members of the group feel good about themselves. Such sweeping generalities are not at all useful.

Also, it is not reasonable to imply that use of certain words, such as “mindfulness”, “faith” and “ignorance” suggests that these are underdeveloped ideas. It’s like saying that in physics the word “relativity” is used frequently because E=MC2 is underdeveloped.

All words are deceptive in that they are artificial. Designation and thing designated (referent) cannot be one. Nagarjuna famously pointed out that if they were one, then wood would burn when you say the word “fire.” He also said they could not be different, but to go into that would take us too far afield.

I think that it is somewhat deceptive to take words out of context and misconstrue their intended meanings under the guise of trying to “validate” the ideas. It seems to me that there is little interest in substantiating or confirming anything. Perhaps they are trying to validate themselves by “standing above the fray.” Certainly, a bit of smugness from what I’ve seen.

In order to “validate” frequently used words, terms or phrases and analyze the motivations behind their use, it is helpful to have a reasonable grasp of their meanings. The “present moment” is one term I see criticized often and I am amazed that so many people interpret this to mean that we should cut ourselves off from or be unconcerned about the future. Actually, the present moment is like the famous “flash of lightening” in the Diamond Sutra – it only lasts but a very brief instant and then, it’s another moment. Trying to capture the present moment is like trying to catch the wind.

What the term “present moment” really signifies is an attitude of awareness where one is centered in the moments that are unfolding before you and not lost in daydreams of future events or caught up in regrets or nostalgia for past experiences. Furthermore, in Buddhism, the past, present and future are interlinked for in each so-called present moment we are experiencing effects of the past and making causes for the future, whether we want to or not.

There are two kinds of understanding. One is understanding what a person’s ideas are and the other is understanding the truth or falsity of the meaning in such ideas. The latter is rather subjective because not all people will agree as to what is true or false. The meaning that each word has in relation to other words is only a small part of the total meaning, which points the blunder of taking words out of context. Isolating a single word, and assigning to it a context or referent different from that originally used, or point to an unintended meaning as proof of some activity designed to hide from scrutiny or stifle dialogue are two very rocky roads. To go that route, rather than lump all members of a particular religious group together, it might be wiser to focus on specific sub-groups and analyze their possible hidden meanings or intentions, as there is sure to be some variation.

Those who fare on the Buddha way should strive to maintain a seeking mind. This means a mind that is open and positive. It’s only common sense that approaching any kind of teaching, religious or not, with a negative, skeptical mind will not get you very far. It may seem that I am overemphasizing this, but I can tell you from my own experience of struggle with the practice that it is a crucial point.

From Chih-Kuan for Beginners, as translated by Lu K’uan Yu (Charles Luk), here is some timeless guidance from T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i for those who sincerely want to understand Buddhist teachings and learn how to use them to transform their lives:

Instead of slighting the seeming shallowness of the text, Truth-seekers should blush to find that these steps are difficult to practice. However, if their minds are ripe for the teaching, in the twinkling of an eye their sharp wisdom will have no limit and their spiritual understanding will become unfathomable. If they aimlessly drag about words and terms and allow their feelings (and passions) to distort the teaching, they will fritter away their time and will fail to achieve realization; they are like a man who counts the treasures belonging to others. What advantages can they expect therefrom?

There is a difference between Eastern mind and Western mind and it is the same as the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning.

Deductive reasoning is defined as a “reasoning process in which the conclusion logically follows from the premises, and in which the conclusion has to be true if the premises are true. In inductive reasoning, on the contrary, there is no logical movement from premises to conclusion. The premises constitute good reasons for accepting the conclusion.” (

By the Western standard of reasoning much of Eastern philosophy is illogical because it strings together incoherent, irrelevant and unconnected thought to form conclusions, whereas we use what we consider to be logical thought. However, that thoughts are logical is not proof of their truth, and conversely, because something is illogical is not proof of falseness.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to approach an Eastern philosophy like Buddhism purely from a Western perspective. We are too analytical and you can’t get Buddha-dharma from analysis and study alone. This is a philosophy based on experience, specifically the meditative experience. What we gain intuitively from that and then translate into our daily lives is the prime point, and the philosophy, all the doctrine and concepts and terms, are just there as support.

That’s bad news to those, myself included, who have a tendency to philosophize first and practice second. But mindfulness practice is about moving away from the kind of thinking that prevents us from having a direct experience of reality as it truly is. To be frank, from the Buddhist point of view, thinking gets in the way. That’s why there are teachings about “no-thought” and admonitions about putting aside thought construction, and embracing the emptiness of mind.

Pure thought just is. It does not require proof nor does it, as pure thought, provide proof of anything, except that there is mental activity. But once we move away and start with conceptual thought, then it’s all about construction and fiddling around with the building blocks of appearance, symbols, meanings, referents, language, semantics, and so on. None of which zeros in on the kind of direct experience that Buddhism is ultimately concerned with.

Vipassana is a form of Buddhist meditation based on self-observation and introspection. It is interesting to note that neither observation nor introspection is thought. Actually, the two words are essentially the same as introspection is only the observation of subjective mental properties. Thought may lead a person to become aware of a particular thing, yet that awareness is not a module of thought, and cognition is the result of mere observation.

This is not to say that analytical or critical thinking should be discarded. On the contrary, it is encouraged, but it requires balance. There should be recognition that in the end the subject is beyond analysis and thinking. It’s a fine line. Doubt is natural, especially in the beginning years of one’s practice. However, it can easily turn into skepticism. A doubter is open to the possibility that the opposite of what he or she believes is true. A skeptic, on the other hand, can be a person who habitually doubts, indicating a narrower frame of mind. What was once healthy, then becomes unhealthy.

I’m also not suggesting that the Eastern approach is perfect and could not benefit from some Western influence. Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that Buddhism sprang from an Eastern mind and for us to understand it in any meaningful way requires that we be open to this different mode of thought.

Turn off your mind, relax
and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

John Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

Fifty years ago today, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States. I was eight years old.

I have a vague recollection of Eisenhower. He was some old guy who interrupted my cartoons one afternoon to make an announcement about something. It might have been important but I didn’t care. I wanted my cartoons.

All I remember from Kennedy’s inauguration is seeing him give the “Ask not what you can do for your country . . .” line on the evening news. I remember much more about the day he died. Some details of that afternoon, I will never forget.

Kennedy was young, so naturally I related. His coming on the scene as president coincided with my growing curiosity about the world outside of my home, neighborhood, and school, the world outside of cartoons that was often frighteningly real with heavy threats like the Bomb. But it was also shot with  heavy doses of optimism, vitality and purposefulness, which was the vantage point of youth as well as the tenor of Kennedy’s time as president.

There’s not much one can add about Kennedy’s legacy. However, I have always thought that the Peace Corps was his greatest contribution. What an incredible idea it was for the time, for any time: Volunteers who “travel overseas to make real differences in the lives of real people.” The Peace Corps is 50 years old this March 1st. According to their website, “The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.”

Yesterday, we saw the passing of Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps’ first director. Shriver was also responsible for starting VISTA, a domestic version of the Peace Corps; Head Start; the Job Corps; and Legal Services for the Poor. He was, as President Obama said, “one of the brightest lights of the greatest generation.”

The day John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president, he invited Robert Frost to read a poem at the event. It was the first time a poet had been asked to participate in a presidential inauguration. Frost was 87 years old, a famous and honored poet, the recipient of four Pulitzer Prizes.

According to, “Kennedy asked if Frost planned to recite a new poem. If not, could he recite The Gift Outright, a poem Frost has called ‘a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse.’ Kennedy also requested changing the phrase in the last line to ‘such as she will become’ from ‘such as she would become.’ Frost agreed . . . As inauguration day approached, however, Frost surprised himself by composing a new poem, Dedication . . . which he planned to read as a preface to the poem Kennedy requested. But on the drive to the Capitol on January 20, 1961, Frost worried that the piece, typed on one of the hotel typewriters the night before, was difficult to read even in good light. When he stood to recite the poem, the wind and the bright reflection of sunlight off new fallen snow made the reading the poem impossible. He was able, however, to recite The Gift Outright from memory.”

Here is the poem Frost read that day:

The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Robert Frost

The history recounted in this poem could be an analogy for the history of the human spirit. “Our land of living” could be the mind. And we, withholding our true natures from ourselves. Thinking that our mind controls us, instead of the other way around. Thinking we cannot control anything. We have trouble seeing that we find liberation in surrendering our desires, our preferences, our prejudices. Surrender, the gift we give ourselves. Westward, we walk on the path of awakening. To walk in this kind of surrender does not mean walking in defeat, but in confidence and with hope. Toward the burning horizon, where the Endless Further lies and all dualities, all possessions and all possessed, dissolve in the brightness and heat of the setting sun.

Photo: United Press International

Some individuals do not believe in a connection between succeeding events, and because they doubt it, they feel that causality is a specious concept. They maintain that there is only a string of events or phenomena and one is not caused by another. However, this only leads to the notion that events come out of nothing, by chance, and that being the case, control of events is not possible.

Buddhism teaches that there is causality. The word “cause” refers to any “thing” (dharma) or any part of any thing which produces an effect. The effect implies not only manifestation but also the relationship between the cause and the effect.

Any event is not caused by only one thing. There are innumerable aspects that play a part, many of which condition the production of any event. Causes and effects form complex chains, each link is the effect of combinations of causes, and a cause is also a combination of effects.

According to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, avijja or ignorance is the cause of desire and clinging and creates dukkha or suffering. Ignorance is lack of knowledge or understanding. In Buddhism this is meant in the sense of a fundamental darkness within life. The Buddha taught that it also refers to ignorance of cause and effect and the way things really are.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said,

The purpose of practice is not to be reborn in paradise or Buddha-land after death. The purpose is to have peace for ourselves and others right now, while we are alive and breathing. Means and ends cannot be separated. Bodhisattvas are careful about causes, while ordinary people care more about effects, because bodhisattvas see that cause and effect are one. An enlightened person never says, ‘This is only a means.’ Based on the insight that means are ends, all activities and practices should be entered into mindfully and peacefully.

Human activities result in interaction between individuals. Some are peaceful and co-operative, while others are turbulent and conflicting. In conflict, the weaker individual is overcome by the stronger one, but conflict is always self-destructive. Discordant activities are caused by ignorance of the interdependent nature of all things. All life is activity, and to know that a higher quality of life is achieved through better co-operation with others is the antidote to conflict and disharmony.

An atom, a cell, an organ, our entire person is comprised of co-operative groups of single entities, and just as a healthy individual body is achieved when these entities work in harmony, together with other individuals we form a society that functions better, that is, there is increased welfare of all its members, when relationships are non-antagonistic and co-operative.  This simple truth opens the gate to real solutions to enduring problems.

Ultimately, we cannot say that there is ever an end to ignorance of cause and effect. If anyone could fully comprehend all the various elements and factors of causality, that person could predict the course of future events.

The idea is to understand as best we can, to be mindful of causality and interdependency so that we live with others peacefully. Whether or not it is possible to control events is a debate that I’m not sure we need by concerned with, for we do know with absolute certainty that we can control ourselves. By training our mind, practicing mindfulness, we can control the causes we make and that in turn will influence events. If we construct our lives and society based on causes that promote harmony and peace, then surely we need not fear anything the future can bring.

Seng-ts’an wrote in the Verses on the Faith-Mind:

One thing, all things;
move among and intermingle,
without distinction.
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about nonperfection.
To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.

The Way is beyond language,
for in it there is

no yesterday

no tomorrow

no today.

Don’t come to my part of Hollywood to eat unless you like Thai Food. I mean, really like it. Because that’s all we have now. Five solid blocks of Thai restaurants. I haven’t counted them but there must be at least 25. Maybe more. Don’t get me wrong, I like Thai food, but I like variety too. Taco Bell moved out several years ago. Maybe that was a public service. There’s a Thai place there now. Sizzler left last summer. The salad bar was pretty good. It’s standing empty at the present time, but I am laying odds as to what it turns into. And the last bastion of Americana, Daily Donuts (run by a Thai couple) has been replaced with, guess what?

Well, this is Thai Town after all, but it’s also kind of overkill, if you ask me. And no one has. The epicenter is a strip mall where the aforementioned donut shop was, and there used to be a handy Laundromat, too. Now it is a strip mall with a Thai massage parlor, a Thai perfume shop, Thai insurance, Thai restaurants and valet parking.

One Saturday a month, people gather in the morning at the Thailand Plaza next door (it’s not really a plaza, just a Thai grocery store with a Thai nightclub above it) to offer food to monks from the various Thai temples around town. Not being that intimate with Theravada or Thailand, one time as I watched the rite, I asked a Thai guy who looked like he might speak English, “What do you call this ceremony where you offer food to the monks?” He replied, “We call it offering food to the monks.”

Actually it’s called Tak Bat which means “alms giving”. By offering rice, soft drinks, cakes and so on, people are doing good deeds or Tham Bun. This is a daily ritual in most Theravada countries. I don’t know about Mahayana. I don’t recall ever seeing Mahayana monks do this, although I have see them receive offerings in a temple setting. The alms giving/receiving, of course, is a tradition that dates back to the Buddha’s time.

The ceremony is very short, only about an hour. The people show up, set up their tables, and wait. Then the monks show up and they wait until everyone is there and then they begin their procession, holding their alms bowls, accompanied by someone with a shopping cart for the overflow. After the food has been distributed, one of the monks gives a short talk, followed by some brief chanting, and then everyone goes home. Short and sweet.

Here some photos I took from this month’s Tak Bat with a link to the full set at the bottom. Saturday was nice and warm. It climbed up to 80 in the afternoon. Some monks came in from as far away as Riverside, and there were monks from Wat Thai in North Hollywood there, as well as Dharma Vijaya over on Crenshaw.

“Did you hear the one about the two monks from Laos . . .”

“Hey, dude! How ya doin’?”

Dancing while the monks are talking is usually frowned upon.

I wasn’t the only one snapping pics.

You can see the rest of the photos here.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. A good time to reflect on Dr. King’s legacy and the principle of non-violence:

Nonviolent resistance is also an internal matter. It not only avoids external violence or external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. And so at the center of our movement stood the philosophy of love. The attitude that the only way to ultimately change humanity and make for the society that we all long for is to keep love at the center of our lives.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
June 4, 1957

Daniel Hernandez with President Obama

Watching President Obama the other night say to Daniel Hernandez, “I’m sorry. You may deny it, but we have decided you are a hero,” and then seeing the young intern play down his new-found status yet again in a CNN interview, got me thinking a bit about what constitutes a true hero and while I probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, I will say it anyway . . . but first let me go ‘round the mulberry bush a few times . . .

Super-heroes on film have come a long way, baby. A few nights ago I watched, finally, Iron Man, the 2008 film with Robert Downey Jr. I rarely go to movies in theaters, mainly because they are too damn loud, so I wait for the movies I want to see to come on cable, where I can control the volume. In the case of Iron Man, it seemed to take forever. Anyway, it was all right, not quite as good as I had been led to believe, though. Of course, the real stars of these movies are the special effects.

I’m not into comic books much these days. But I was once. I envy the kids today who are into comics and who get to see these films at a time in their lives when they can really appreciate the mega-coolness of flying and displaying super powers. Back in the day, my day, special effects were primitive, and in retrospect, pretty lame.

Take the first appearance of Superman on film: In the 1948 serial starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel, the flying business was accomplished by switching to animation. Very obvious. Apparently, they had tried to suspend Alyn with hidden wires, but the wires wouldn’t stay hidden. When Superman came to television, in the series starring George Reeves, they had him lie on a board “filmed in front of aerial footage on back-projection screen, or against a neutral background which would provide a matte which would be optically combined with a swish-pan or aerial shot” (Wikipedia). The board was obvious, too. Even to a five-year old like me. But I loved the Superman show anyway.

I remember crying on my mother’s bed the day they took Superman off the air, prompted possibly by George Reeve’s suicide, information about which my parents withheld from me. Instead of The Adventures of Superman, they had some show with big kids performing acts of contortion while bunched together in the center of a room while weird music played in the background. I think the show was called American Bandstand.

Back to special effects – Nowadays, even though you know they are using computer animation, it’s so good and seamless that it’s rather easy to forget about it, and with the films since the 1978 Superman with Christopher Reeve, “you’ll believe a man can fly”.

The latest super-hero opus, Green Hornet, is poised to open big this weekend. The Green Hornet is not a super-hero per se, because he doesn’t have any super-powers, so he’s more of a masked vigilante.  He got his start as a 1930’s radio series, co-created by Frank Striker, the creator of the Lone Ranger and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. In the 1960’s, cashing in on the success of the campy Batman TV series, Green Hornet was turned into a weekly half-hour show staring Van Williams as the title character and Bruce Lee as his sidekick and chauffeur, Kato. The show didn’t last very long, only one season, 26 episodes. Williams later left acting and became a reserve officer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department, and unless you have been living on Mars for the last half-century, you know what became of Bruce Lee.

According to fellow actor Robert Ito, Lee hated the role of Kato because he “thought it was so subservient”. Nonetheless, it opened many a door for him.

Today, Bruce Lee is real life hero to many. Even Mao Zedong said so. According to a recent article in the Daily China in 1974 “While watching Fist of Fury for the first time, Mao dissolved in tears” and called out “Bruce Lee is a hero!”

Whether or not Lee saw himself in that light, I don’t know. I think he was humble enough that he might have been somewhat embarrassed by the designation, but on the other hand, no doubt he recognized the need for more ethic role-models and probably would not have discouraged it.

Our fascination with super-heroes is an example of how our sense of what constitutes a hero is often out of balance. We expect heroes to be larger than life. In the past, those hailed as heroes usually fit a particular ethnic model. For instance in the first forty or so years after WWII, many people knew about soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of the war, but few knew anything of the 442nd, the Japanese-American unit that became the most highly decorated regiment in the entire history of the United States. Thank goodness, we bestow the mantle of hero more equally now.

Christopher Reeve "Superman"

Christopher Reeve, who in real life faced one of the most daunting challenges imaginable, once said, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

A hero is someone who displays courage. And there are many ways to do that. We don’t just find heroes in the midst of extraordinary events, in fact, the real heroes of this world are quite ordinary and they display their courage in everyday situations. Raising a family, getting along with co-workers, spouses, schoolmates. Fighting cancer. Donating time and energy to causes. Touching the lives of others.

In Tibet, the word “bodhisattva” is translated as jangchub sempa or “enlightening mind-hero.” Korean Zen teacher, Mu Soeng, calls this “an articulation of the bodhisattva as a new type of spiritual hero.” Bodhi means “wake” but while sattva can mean “sentient being” Donald S. Lopez has pointed out that it can also mean “mind” and “intention.” Commenting on the Tibetan “mind-hero”, he says, “This suggests that they were cognizant of both the second and third meanings of sattva mentioned above and felt that both should be incorporated into the Tibetan translation with the resulting meaning being, “one who is heroic in his or her intention to achieve enlightenment.”

To achieve enlightenment may sound like a lofty goal, but I am someone who feels that enlightenment consists of little more than living a life of compassion, ethics and wisdom. Perfect, supreme enlightenment is for super heroes. It’s the seemingly mundane accomplishments of everyday mind-heroes that really count for something. For a person struggling with depression, just getting up to face another day might be a great act of courage on his or her part. For someone with cancer, it might be just making it through another chemo session. For someone else it might be not taking a drink, or being honest with another, or showing tenderness . . .

When someone acts as Daniel Hernandez did, to extend help to another without pause, without thinking about it, no matter how small that altruistic act may be, then perhaps we do ascend to super-hero status. We can be – we are – the Supermen and Green Hornets of daily life. It doesn’t really even take courage, for had Hernandez or anyone else stopped to think about it, they might not have leaped into the fray. What it takes is simply holding others in your mind, seeing their welfare as being equal to yours, and knowing that we are dependent upon each other and that the happiness of others is the same as happiness for yourself. Then you can’t help but respond. You don’t stop to think about it.

A hero doesn’t have to fly in the air, bend steel in his or her bare hands. Heroes definitely do not have to kick anybody’s ass, unless it’s their own, for true heroes of the mind know that ultimately the battle we are fighting is with ourselves. Nor do we need to wear masks or capes . . . but we do need to wear the uniform of compassion and display the power of wisdom.

David Bowie got all his coolest moves from Bruce Lee

Green Hornet: Think about this, Kato. We’ve been completely wasting our potential. This city needs our help. We could be heroes!

David Bowie: We could be heroes just for one day.