The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Saturday, October 6, 2018
Spirituality ... Zen ...

My Zen sangha meets every Sunday morning for Zazen, and we usually chant the Heart Sutra at the end of our sitting. One famous line from the Sutra goes as follows:

No Old Age and Death,
And No End to Old Age and Death

Whatever that means. Still, I am now in my “old age”, and death has taken on a personal meaning in my life, for obvious reasons — i.e., if I’m lucky, I have left maybe 1/3 of time that has already passed since I graduated from college. It goes quick! You can tell that I’ve led a fairly sheltered life, that I was never in the military, am not a medical professional, and am not a homicide detective, all of whom become very familiar with death at a much earlier age.

However, I did work for a law enforcement agency that has a homicide unit, and I always respected the people that work in it. There is a recent article in the local newspaper about a former homicide detective and supervisor from our agency who recently retired, who now looks back on the estimated 1,000 dead bodies that he came across in his years on the streets. Worth a read — this is a guy who had no time for stuff like Zen and the Heart Sutra, but could now perhaps use a bit of it. (I actually knew this fellow a little, he was very well respected; like most people in law enforcement, he’s a lot more real than most of the “snowflakey” types in my sangha, myself included!)

But OK, back to to the navel-gazing into my own approaching mortality. At this age, a person needs to come to grips with death — no more ignoring it (although I suppose that you can, if you’re really healthy and have a lot going in your life — both of which categories I don’t fit into anymore). So how to feel about it? I suppose that depends to a large degree on how you feel about life, about being alive, and about being alive with other people. If you like being alive, if you’ve enjoyed the experience of living a conscious, sentient life, if you’ve generally enjoyed relating to other people (despite the occasional negative human interactions and experiences that are unavoidable in any social context), then perhaps  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:15 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, February 17, 2018
Spirituality ... Zen ...

Our Zen sangha recently discussed a koan called “Kyogen Mounts The Tree“. It’s about a sage named Kyogen who describes a man hanging onto a tree branch with his teeth, while dangling over a steep cliff. The koan did not specify why this man could not grab on to the branch with his arms and hands — perhaps he was disabled? And just how did the guy get into this predicament? That would require a sensible answer, and koans are not in the business of providing sensible answers.

Anyway, according to the koan story, someone else came along and saw the poor fellow up in the tree, hanging on for life. The sojourner did not make any attempt to rescue Kyogen’s friend — perhaps there isn’t much that could have been done in ancient times, a time without cell phones and body harnesses and helicopters. So, the passer-by decided to ask the hanging man a question: Why does Bodhidharma come to China from India? This question puts Kyogen’s man in a quandry — if he stays quiet, he “fails” — presumably he misses his chance to spread the dharma and perhaps attain his own enlightenment (for it is in teaching that we learn the most). But by staying mum, he keeps alive the hope that somehow, something will rescue him. If he does decide to answer, he goes down into the chasm, and dies on the rocks below. But in the few seconds of his fall, he might attain enlightenment (or at least bring the passer-by to it — assuming that Kyogen’s man has a good answer).

Various members of our group argued that the answer is obvious: let go and answer the question! Being a true Zen student means taking the risk, accepting the worst, and letting go. Even if that means making a sacrifice for the cause. We should not get hung-up on what seems most obvious — i.e., putting self-preservation first. The fear and struggle caused by mindless self-preservation holds us back; it can be worse than the consequence itself. This would seem most consistent with the Buddha’s teachings that grasping and desire are the ultimate cause of suffering, and  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:07 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, September 2, 2017
Religion ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

Many years ago, in a personal search for contemplative sanctity following a romantic break-up, I took up the study of Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk and author whose spiritual works became popular in the late 1940s, and remained a big part of the Roman Catholic book scene through the 50’s and 60’s. Merton’s life, and the many changes that both he and his thoughts and writings went through over the course of his life (which was ironically cut short at the age of 53 due to an accidental electrocution while attending a conference in Thailand), is a story in itself.

Merton began his adulthood as a well-educated “man of the world”, but then attempted to retreat from that world by immersing himself in the realm of Catholic monastic sanctity (he selected the Trappist tradition just because it seemed the most removed from erudite modernity). But ultimately he found his way back into the cosmopolitan intellectual scene, while remaining a full-fledged Trappist and Catholic priest (and also attempting to take on the life of a hermit!). When you become a Merton enthusiast (as I did) and really drill down into the details of his life, you can see that Merton needed to break a fair number of rules and guidelines in his tradition, and even his Church, in order to pull all of this off. When he died, he left the Trappists, the Church, and the world in general with a lot; but in order to do it, he also made a lot of compromises to his many commitments.

In the last decade of his life, Merton became increasingly interested in the Buddhist tradition, especially Zen Buddhism. His main contact and correspondent from the Zen world was the renowned Japanese Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki (although Merton had also communicated with Thich Nhat Hanh). Merton himself was a very capable scholar, and within a few years he felt himself qualified to write articles and books on Zen. His most famous work is “Zen and the Birds of Appetite” from 1968, although there is also a 1967 Merton book called “Mystics and Zen Masters” (I have read both books). In a nutshell, Merton was  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:21 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, May 22, 2017
Religion ... Zen ...

I’ve been involved with a Zen sangha for seven years now, and so I’ve pretty much seen the “lay of the land” of Buddhism, at least the modern American version of Buddhism. Buddhism says a lot of good and interesting things about life, the universe and everything. But there are some good things that it does not say. One of those things is the value of humility. For whatever reason, I have not read or hear much about the virtue of humility from the various Zen and Buddhist teachers I’ve run across. Humility doesn’t seem to get mentioned in the Buddha’s various “lists”, e.g. the three refuges, the four noble truths, the five faculties / strengths, the eight-fold path, the ten essential precepts, etc.

Even among the thirty seven “Practices of Bodhisattvas”, only one, #31, might relate to humility — “the practice of all the bodhisattvas is to scrutinize oneself continually and to rid oneself of faults whenever they appear”. Even this isn’t exactly very humble — it assumes that we can rid ourselves of our faults with a bit of Buddhist-style self-reflection. Yes, if you do some Googling, you can find articles on the role of humility within Buddhism. You can even find a blog post with the same title that I’m using here, sans the question mark — where the writer claims that Zen is a humble tradition because one of its “koan” stories admits that Zen is not really needed (in the sense that “we seek what we already have”). Given that there are allegedly about 1,700 koans, one line about “selling water by the river” does not a trend make.

There are also the various Buddhist rituals that seem to reflect personal humility, such as the frequent bowing that we Zen-folk do when trying to imitate our Japanese predecessors. But there is also some Japanese hubris that has filtered its way into modern Zen centers (including my own), such as the perceived need by teachers to be condescending and sometimes even rude with their students. Some groups even maintain the old Japanese tradition of having a priest walk with a stick  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:16 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, January 27, 2017
Psychology ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

Being an old guy with old-fashioned habits going well back into the previous century, I still like to have paper reading material at my dinner table, so as to peruse while I eat (or after I eat; more and more I like to linger at the dinner table for a while after I’ve finished my food and drink). I’ve been a subscriber to The Atlantic for over 25 years, and I still try to get thru the issues each month. The January/February issue had quite a few interesting article topics, including octopus consciousness, oil fracking, Glenn Beck, the health dangers of sugar, sleep difficulties (something I experience all too often these days), and not surprisingly, another screed against white America by Ta Nehisi Coates, renewing his call for reparations because of the sin of replacing Barack Obama with Donald Trump.

(Sorry, Mr. Coates — despite all of the historical injustices inflicted upon African-Americans by whites which you accurately cite, African Americans must share some of the blame for Trump, given that too many qualified African American voters who helped Obama in 2008 and 2012 stayed home this past November 9; despite the racism and sexism that motivated some white voters, had blacks they turned out, Trump might not have carried Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Also, note that Mr. Coates mostly ignores the issue of voter misogyny against Clinton — which cuts across color lines).

All of that was quite good and interesting. But the article that I have given the most thought to lately is a short piece entitled “Awesomeness Is Everything“. Awesomeness? Does that have to do with “awe”? I never thought much about awe. I can’t say that I’ve experienced it very often in my life, or if I did, I didn’t immediately recognize myself being “awe struck”. To me, awe is more of an advertising term — this new IPhone is awesome! It has also had its political uses, e.g. the supposed “shock and awe”  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:38 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Science ... Zen ...

Way back when I was in high school and college, I took a handful of courses on chemistry. And I thought they were generally interesting, although to really understand chemistry and get a good grade, you had to put in the time and get your mind up to speed on a lot of different scientific concepts. And then figure out how they interact and come together in making up the raw materials that form the world around us. That’s chemistry — pretty neat, and the labs can be fun, but still a lot of work.

I don’t have much need to understand chemistry in my old age, but once in a blue moon I might still come across a factoid or two that renews the bond that I once felt for the subject of chemistry (recall that a big part of chemistry involves how the “bonds” between atoms and molecules work . . . so yeah, this is a rather feeble attempt at humor on my part). I’m still an “eternal student” and I still watch or listen to the recorded courses offered by The Teaching Company; right now I’m half way through “The Origins of Life” by Professor Robert Hazen. I thought that this course would be a sleeper, but Dr. Hazen makes the subject surprisingly interesting. His enthusiasm for the work and research that he does in the scientific field of how living things work and how they got started eons ago really comes through. (Here’s a 1-hour You Tube freebie from Hazen on this topic; so I’m not shilling for TTC here, but if they’d like to make me an offer . . . [SMILE])

In Dr. Hazen’s enthusiastic quest to help eternal students like myself learn more about how living cells may have first formed back when the earth was young, he has to tell us about the most important chemicals that make life on earth possible. And one of the top 3 chemicals for that is water — agua, good old H2O. (Carbon is certainly also in the triumvirate, and the third member could be iron — which is what makes your blood red and  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:35 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
Personal Reflections ... Zen ...

I haven’t had much blogging inspiration of late. But I just wrote a note to a “Zen buddy” of mine who is spending the summer in France. Given that he is a 72 year old idealist who still carries the torch for Bernie Sanders, I congratulated him for not giving in to “comfortable numbness” (yes, I’m thinking of the Pink Floyd song). Since we are both Zen students and loyal participants at the local zendo, and yet we both retain something of a healthy skepticism regarding all “bodies of received wisdom” including Buddhism and Zen, I made the point to my friend that Zen practice is not necessarily an antidote to the eviscerating comfort of modern suburban life that Roger Waters sang of. Then I followed up with something of a Zen thought, or maybe more appropriately, an anti-Zen thought. I.e., that Zen is often just another form of “existential novocaine”.

And yes, this thought was also inspired by Pink Floyd — recall the line that goes “just a little pin-prick, they’ll no more AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH . . . but you may feel a little sick.”

So I did a Google on the phrase “existential novocaine”, and I only found two other places where the phrase was used. SO, it’s an “almost original”. And no one has yet tied it to Zen or Buddhism. So, I stake my claim !!

Well, I usually like to write long essays, but for tonight, I’ll go the Zen route and keep it short. Zen and Buddhism as existential novocaine — take it or leave it. An Anti-Zen Thought . . . but then again, Zen is sort of like the elementary particle known as the neutrino. One of the interesting characteristics of the ghost-like (almost Zen-like) neutrino is that it probably serves as its own “anti-particle” (as with gluons and Higgs bosons). Perhaps so too with Zen . . . when you criticize Zen, you are actually doing Zen. Perhaps all the more so!!

PS, here’s an interesting post I found regarding “Cultural Novocaine”. I’m not sure exactly what the author (a Mr. Steppling) is trying to sell, but I love his line about “the strip mining of consciousness”. YES!!! That’s another good way to describe Zen. Anti-Zen as Zen!! Love it!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:02 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, October 24, 2015
Religion ... Zen ...

I haven’t gotten around to posting anything here lately, this is my first post in almost 2 weeks. What have I been doing with myself lately? Oh, cooking, cleaning, going to work, paying bills, and thinking about life and death. I mentioned in a previous blog that I had a “direct-to-consumer” DNA evaluation done a few years ago on, and along with the genealogy information, 23 also gave you an assessment of your genetically-related health risks. (Since then, the US FDA has stopped them from providing health reports — 23andme still offers genealogy tests). My own results on 23 seemed fairly benign — one or two things that might eventually become an issue, but nothing all that terrible.

Recently, however, I learned that you can access your digital DNA results from 23andme and upload them onto a site called, and for $5 they will give you a very detailed list of how your “SNP pairings” stack up against the “wiki” database of health-related genetic studies. This seemed like a good idea to me, since my health reports from 23andme were based on a pool of gene studies that appears to have last been updated in 2011 (many months before I sent in my saliva, in mid-2013; incidentally, that was only about 6 months before the FDA shut 23’s health service down). A lot of new knowledge about genes and health must have come out since them. So, I got my results from Promethease (it takes only a few minutes, actually) and have spent a lot of time pouring over them in the past few weeks. Bottom line . . . in great detail, they paint a much darker picture of my susceptibility to a wide variety of diseases than 23andme did.

In comparing some of the Promethease / SNPedia results with the 23 reports, it turns out that 23andme wasn’t always considering the full range of DNA studies available up through 2011, and in some instances, it misinterpreted them!!! For one condition involving eyesight  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:26 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, September 4, 2015
Religion ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

It’s time once again to think about the Big Question: what should you ultimately believe about YOURSELF (and about the world around you)? About where you are heading, why are you here . . .

In the Zen tradition, there is no self, no eternity, no personal transcendence of death (although through karma, something of one’s behavior does achieve transcendent manifestation). Time is a mental abstraction, a product of the mind. As such, it is discouraged from any use other than making sure that you get to the dentist on time, and other such quotidian things. The ultimate psychological emphasis should be on the present, on the now, on living in the moment. The future, the eternal . . . that is all just “mind stuff”.

In a lot of ways, the Bible’s Old Testament isn’t all that far removed from Zen; at least the early stages of it (i.e., the core “Torah” books). There is little philosophy in it, little struggling with the nature of God and the Universe and the meaning of one’s existence. There is a creation story along with some stories of tribal deliverance, but after that, the Torah has little worry for the future. With all its codes and social edicts, the Torah is mostly about getting by in the present — and about getting along with God. No promises of eternal paradise, just  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:53 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, June 29, 2015
Photo ... Zen ...

I’ve been involved in American Zen for more than 5 years now. I’ve listened to and talked with a handful of “teachers”, and I’ve read various books and internet sites about Zen; what I’ve experienced seems pretty typical of Zen in the USA.

But what is Zen really about? I can’t say that I’ve grasped it. Some teachers say that such befuddlement is a good thing. Sure, but is befuddlement helpful to my life? I’m not getting the sense that Zen is really making me a better person in any particular way. Just what is the point of Zen, of its rituals, of its teachings, but especially of its meditation, given that zazen seems to be the core of it? Most of the teachers I’m familiar with are psychotherapists, so it’s no surprise that they couch Zen in terms of achieving psychological health.

But that seems just so “American”. Psychological health — was that what the ancient masters in Japan and China were after? Is that why the  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:34 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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