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Friday, December 28, 2012

End of the Year email; on Tarantino, cultural signifiers and the slaughter of innocents

Technically, I'm on retreat. I've spent the past couple of days from the crack of dawn to ten at night in cultivating insight and hopefully inclining more toward enlightenment. That said, I took today off to check out "Django Unchained" and as happens, this provided the subject in part, of an email to my sister.

It may or may not be of any great insight or use, but I found ideas and words voicing themselves more than I intended.

To wit:

I took a break today to go see "Django", Tarantino's new one. It's really good. I think he still enjoys film-making and truthfully, the sucker can write. Plus: ace performances from Jamie Foxx, Christolph Waltz (dude's amazing), Dicaprio (having the time of his life!), and Samuel L. Jackson turning in what may be his best work ever (yes, even "Pulp Fiction" and his Spike Lee work.)

In addition to the performances, the other plus is that Tarantino has a better grasp of the material than he had in the grossly over-rated "Inglorious Basterds"; the minus side? It's not Tarantino-specific, but I'm tired of gun fights, explosions and the rest of it. There. I said it. *I*, of all people, said it. But I'm bored. I've seen people eviscerated, shot, blown up, tortured, eaten by zombies (and other people) and who knows what else and while I get the exploitation film-as-cultural signifier, etc., I'm bored with it all.

Honestly, it's become so commonplace I was so happy to see "Silver Linings Playbook" almost because no one was shot up, bludgeoned or otherwise assaulted. My god! Deniro wept instead of blowing someone's head off!

Interestingly, I watched "The Expendables 2" with Nick, "In Time" and Soderbergh's "Contagion" with [my nephew and his wonderful girl friend] Dan and Meghan. "Contagion" had no one getting shot, just people dying by the buttload from, well, a pandemic. Glad I saw it, it's one of Soderbergh's more thought provoking films, and may be one of his last (kick-ass performances by Damon, Paltrow, and a cast too great and numerous to list one by one), but still, I'm bored with people dying every time I walk in a theater or flip on a DVD. No one died in "Ted", but that was, well, it was okay. I laughed - I like Seth Rogen and Mark Wahlberg (and Mila Kunis acted circles around them with the thankless girlfriend-as-the-voice-of-reason role) - but I want a drama that doesn't involve gun play or explosions. For a couple of months... Heck, I don't even want to see "The Hobbit" because I'm bored with stabbings. And you know people are going to get stabbed in that.

Of course, I am also watching a Tarantino film on break from a meditation retreat so the argument could be made that I'm overly sensitive, but I don't think so. The past couple of weeks, I've wrestled with why it is that we care more for gunned down white children in Connecticut but don't particularly care about black kids who meet their demise every day in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York or kids who are blown to bits by our drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I feel terrible for putting it like that, but why is it our media doesn't report with the same degree of urgency the ongoing "slaughter of the innocents" (if we want to be melodramatic about it) that goes on minute by minute in this mad world?

And excuse me for saying this; but I'm really tired of the "God talk" that comes up in the reporting. Swear to...well, whatever, but if these people's God is so great, good, kind and loving, he's dropped the ball big time. So I'm kind of done with bang bang shoot 'em up stuff for a while.

Also, I've been more than a little concerned with the unfolding rape stories coming out of India. What madness is this? I swear, sis, there are days when heading for the most remote spot I can find looks really tempting. Anyway, I think there is much more at work than mere geopolitics and social malaise, but I'll refrain from waxing goofy.

In the meantime, there is the third season of "Portlandia" starting. Next time in Houston, I'll be happy to check it out...unless Fred Armisen goes mental and takes out a MacDonalds because its a symbol of capitalist oppression or Kyle MacLachlan thinks he's back working for David Lynch...

Give a howdy if/when you get a chance...I may use this for Facebook or a blog post....

Sent from my iPad



Wednesday, December 19, 2012


I don't think I have anything terribly enlightening to add to the voices decrying and suffering from the Newtown shootings. I do think that there are some much brighter, smarter and insightful people offering reflection on this tragedy and I defer to them.

This first link is an essay by a woman who's son is afflicted by mental illness. She writes, "I am Adam Kanza's mother" because her son exhibits increasingly destructive and pathological behavior.

Brad Warner, whose work I admire as an author, a Buddhist, and all around thoughtful person has a strong blog post that opens up heartfelt discussions in the threads that follow the main post. There are a number of links worth clicking on throughout.

Last, there's this, from Roger Ebert that was published some years back, but it is worth considering how the media plays to emotions and either intentionally or not, those to sometimes evoke or provoke certain responses.

We live in this often chaotic world of madness of our own making. We are the victims, we are the perpetrators, too. We are capable of so much unthinking madness and destruction of self and others; however, we have a limitless capacity for healing, wholeness, and beauty.

It is a commonplace to say our prayers and thoughts are with the victims of any given tragedy, but I would like to expand that canvas to including all of us in these prayers and thoughts.

Peace to all,


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Autumnal thinking

I hope this doesn't sound too portentous, but I'm taking a different tack here. I'm thinking of drawing a little more inward, mostly because I've bored myself with looking at the outside. That said, I'll try not to be too heavy, but I think there's a lot going on that provokes a certain amount of reflection. I don't necessarily want to add "at this time of year" because reflection is provoked almost twenty-four by seven. Whether I express it or not, is another matter.

As a point of departure, I want to look at what in Buddhism are referred to as the four thoughts that "turn the mind" (that's only part of the phrase; the other part is "...toward the dharma", but I have a reason for not appending that just yet). The four thoughts are essentially reflections on 1) the fortuitous advent of a human birth, 2) death and impermanence, 3) karma and rebirth and 4) the path to liberation from the round of cyclic existence(s).

There are caveats. One is that I'm not orthodox in my interpretation of what the more technical terms might mean, another is that I'm hedging my bets on some fronts and a last one is that I offer this as points of departure for everyone else to share and reflect on.

This Fortuitous Juncture

According to a well worn trope in Buddhism, it is extremely difficult to obtain a human birth. It is said to be more difficult than the chance blind tortoise at the bottom of the ocean who swims to the surface once an eon and places his head randomly through a golden yoke has. The point is, it's not an ordinary occurrence. I sometimes wonder if this isn't an analogy for the probability that out of billions of sperm cells, only one has the potential to attach to an ovum and begin the metotic process resulting in an embryo.

In any event, the point is well-taken if we see this existence as a precious opportunity to live as fully, consciously and compassionately as possible. Usually, what follows upon introducing this topic is a sequence of arguments that lay out how important it is to investigate fully one's own existence and the connection we have with all other sentient beings. Thus, compassion is requisite and wisdom to implement that compassion equally so.

I feel that it's taken me this long to just begin to appreciate what all this means. If the saying that "youth is wasted on the young" rings true, it's because all you have to do is reflect where in your younger years you could have been more giving and more forgiving. It's also ludicrous to blame your parents, your upbringing, your environment; at a certain point, you get it. We have options; we can bitch and gripe about how crummy our lot in life is or if we're honest, we can see that we have at any given juncture, choices. This brings us to something more challenging.

Say that we come to one of those junctures. Lets say that I take this job instead of another; suppose it doesn't work out, suppose the company fails and my wife and children and I are reduced to food stamps and section eight housing? The outcome isn't predetermined. If quantum physics has taught us anything, contingency is the nature of the phenomena. If determinists want to mewl and puke about how every single detail is predestined, they are vey much missing the point. This will become exceedingly clearer in what is to follow.

Suffice it to say that life is more than the choices you or I make. There are deeper principles at work and this can seem both terrifying and dizzying. It can also open up horizons undreamed.

In order to grasp some small stretch of those horizons, let's look at the next thought.

Impermanence and Death

Nothing gets people going like this. Intellectually-oriented people will say "huh! Well of course all phenomena are impermanent and of course, we all have to die." Good on them. But it reminds me of a Mullah Nasruddin story. Nasruddin is strolling along when a man comes up, bids him good day and asks how he feels. Nasruddin replies, "I feel like a man who does not know if he will still be alive at sundown." The man says, "well, but that's every man's situation!" To which Nasruddin retorts, "yes! But how many feel it?"

For the most part,I don't think we feel the fact of our demises at all or we are aware of the end of phenomenal existence only at a remove. We don't want to think about it, we don't want to discuss it, and if we do, we figure that "it'll happen later down the line" or "there's a better world awaiting my immortal soul."

Well! More than likely,if you form the thought that it will happen later, that's reasonable. You're still alive to think it. The immortal soul bit? This comes closer to what we want to look at. What makes any of us think that this being is going to go on forever (and for those who believe in a punitive afterlife, this is a comfort?) and what is meant by this, "self"? Lets look at this a little bit.

We tend to conflate "I" with self. This "I", to paraphrase Arthur Rimbaud, is almost something completely other. The "I" is a composite, a ghost of acculturation, a synthesis of a "personal history" formed by countless interactions with "others" in a situation called by a kind of consensus, "the World." That's the best I can come up with. Wittgenstein said that "the world is all that is the case." I find that insufficient. The world is a fluid construct of verbal, physical, and mostly theoretical reality. It is transient at best, and the temptation is to say,deceptive at worst. But that belies the sense that the deception doesn't come from the World's side; it's we who deceive ourselves.

The main point is that the world is impermanent because we are impermanent. The world is only the world. It is we who invest it with meaning. This is not necessarily Existentialism 101. It's simply us. And there is great beauty in this, if we choose to recognize that the underlying, relatively constant values that we imbue the world with hold meaning relationally. Do we survive death? This is a meaningless question. We have people on record who have been clinically dead and revived to come back with reports of lights and deceased loved ones waiting, but what if that's simply neural firings as the brain is winding down. You can be clinically dead and there is still organic functioning at a level below what is recordable. Of course, you'd see dead relatives! If you're Christian, you might see Jesus, if Hindu Krishna, if, well, you get the idea. But this is all trivial before the fact that, regardless of your belief, you have to let go of this physical existence. You may live to a ripe old age, doddering and drooling. Or not: maybe you're incredibly sharp at 120, but you - as a body - cannot remain. Sorry, pal. You gotta go.

So why do we assume continuity? Part of it is because our physical structure regenerates at a remarkably fast pace. Atoms come together and wander off. Somehow, structures remain relatively intact, but/and with time, change. Most often, they degrade. But they have to terminate sooner or later.

This also includes our "I." Let's look at this again. The "I" is a composite psychic structure that is formed over the course of time by relations, both "external" (as in social interactions) and "internal" (thoughts and images and feelings and emotions) and the cyclic iterations and reiterations of these relations. Is the "I" completely fictional? Ultimately, yes. But "I" exist in relation provisionally. In relation to you and you and you. In relation to objects and situations that "I" react to. The process of reaction continues to construct this fabricated existence. The up side is that through relationship, genuine caring and acceptance of others can come to fruition and the "world" - which for the moment, we can say is all the phenomena we encounter as individual beings - can be situated as a creative process that we can contribute to building. The down side is that we accept everything we tell ourselves uncritically, beginning with thinking that the "I" is the individual, fixed, permanent and the truth of which is unassailable.

If we take the latter approach, we miss out on the prismatic and multivalvent nature of existence. We also set ourselves up for pretty fearful transactions when we encounter the big issues. For some, this is a positive; a shock can be a wake-up call that what is seen isn't as it is. For others, this can be traumatic; the shock can result in disorientation and disintegration and debilitating emotional turmoil. But at some point, we have to encounter the death of "I."

Of course, there are those who would argue that casting consciousness as an emergent property of biochemical interactions doesn't account for how that very interaction transpires and that the idealisms of everyone from the Vedic Hindus to the Gnostics and Hegel hold fast that the phenomenal word is illusory and erroneous at best. Nevertheless, this transition beckons.

Some hold that one's mind stream passes through various intermediate states before re-entry into another enworldment. Others say that subjectively nothing happens. In either event, we assume that memory of prior incarnate events is wiped. Buddhists hold that only those further along the path to enlightenment remember their previous births. Perhaps this a fine entry to the next post which will use the third thought that turns the mind as the beginning point of discussion.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

World Human Rights Day

Tomorrow, 10 December, is World Human Rights Day. A couple of my friends in India have already hailed it and my friend Anne asked what are you going to do for Human Rights Day on her FB page. Fleur Carter wrote a typically eloquent post here. If the link doesn't work, copy and paste this URL:

I'll be succinct and lazy. I'm cribbing this from my note to Fleur:

I think the main thing is that if people just take a few minutes to consider the ramifications of our actions, take a little time to see that caring a little more for our neighbor - whether it's a friend or someone who really tests our patience - than ourselves is a viable approach to living together, then we have seeds planted to that degree in becoming more actively engaged human rights supporters.
That said, to everyone who supports or volunteers with any given group, spread the word. If anyone is on the fence, do a little research, find an organization that makes sense to you and throw in a little love for them. I have a short list I'm always happy to share (and will post later today or tomorrow); doesn't matter who you throw in with in this arena. What helps one, helps all. Succeed in helping one person up an we are all uplifted a little more.
My short list is here without links, but I think everyone knows how to use a search engine for more information.

  1. Human Rights Watch
  2. Amnesty International
  3. Oxfam
  4. Physicians for Human Rights
  5. Medicines sans Frontieres
  6. The Red Cross
  7. Save the Children Fund
You be the idea. You may share some of my interests, so there are more specialized endeavors like US Campaign for Burma, Students for Free Tibet, Machik, and so on. In the main, if there is some area of human rights you'd like to support, there are always places that need you.

Peace, all.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the way to work

In the aftermath of Sandy, the clouds are rolling away and as I write this, the sun is making an appearance. Earlier this morning, though, the sky and light retained a sense of drama.

Waiting for the shuttle, Harvard Square:


Monday, October 29, 2012

Rain, rain...

Well, and wind. Lots of both. The house is moved by the odd gust now and again, but I hardly think well get the kind of huffery that blows the house down.

Visibility out the window is lame, now, because of all this wind and rain stuff, so I don't see much point in posting more. I could post some clips to YouTube and load them here, but that's more work than its worth and really wouldn't be much more interesting than still photos. What's missing from my little blurbs is the sound of the wind, of the rain that just splattered full force on the window, of the drone that both seem to make with their combined movement. That, and the sirens in the distance.

For follow-up, the city dispatched a crew that came out and removed the limb.



When the bough breaks lands right in front of the house!

This limb is a lot bigger than it looks in the photos. The winds are becoming more sustained and I'm willing to bet that there will be more of this as the trees will be holding more moisture.

It's about ten of two. This branch dropped about ten minutes ago and I'll take that as a sign that Sandy is officially here.

'tis a stiff wind a-blowin'

I grew up with hurricanes. They can wreak havoc and in general, aren't fun when taking into consideration the toll they take. However, when given a day off, I'm the first person to be grateful for my non-essential status.

Sandy looks to be a mother, and not in the happy, warmly sentimental sense. From what I understand, coastal flooding has already begun in New Jersey and other points south. My sense of this is that we'll be spared the brunt of this. The winds are kicking up and subsiding, kicking up, subsiding, but so far, this doesn't seem to be too extreme. My concern lies more with those in the stretch from DC to NYC. May they be safe.

It was great to wake up and meditate and yoga-ate. I've got some reading ahead and I may venture out later to check out what I presume will be an empty Belmont Street.

There's shlock to watch and I'll peruse some Lovecraft and some Poe in honor of the season (it's an annual thing), but/and I have more substantial study to do and there's always more time for contemplation.

For those of you on the region, be safe and warm. Many thanks to all who have sent good wishes our way.

Hm. The wind is picking up more strongly out there.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

Individuals, Organizations and why I'm not slagging Facebook (at least for a while)

For anyone who read the earlier post about a friend of mine at risk, the coast is clearing. I called on a number of friends in the human rights field for ideas and suggestions for interventions to get Anshita to a safe haven. As it happens, the response was quick.

I've known Mark Hiznay for I don't know how long. Mark is a man of sound principle and good taste (he married one of my nearest and dearest...also proving his bravery and resilience; Juliet do not throw anything at me the next time I'm in town.) Long story shortish; Mark is a senior investigator at Human Rights Watch and called on Binalakshmi Nepram. I'm linking to the organization that Bina has founded and cannot stress enough how valuable people like her are. She stands with Rigoberta Menchu and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in my pantheon. That she's stepping in to do the heavy lifting doesn't just make me feel better; it humbles me no end.

Additionally, as an interesting coda, Simon Billenness who I met throught the US Campaign for Burma (speaking of the Lady herself), drew in Shalina Nataraj, VP of Programs, last I heard, at the Global Fund for Women. What makes this interesting is that Bina is a grantee of theirs.

Several thoughts come to mind as a result of all that. One is that I'm fortunate in these friendships; but another is that the world is fortunate to have people in it like Mark and Simon and Nataraj and Bina. This would be a much darker place without them. I know each of them will deny this and say something to the effect that there would probably be someone else and while that might be so, they're the ones that stepped up to the plate.

Another thought is that is that without social media like email and yes, I'm going to say something nice about Facebook, there's no telling how long it would be before I would have heard how Anshita was doing. I can remember the pre-interntet days very well and looking back, it was magnitudes easier to hide, bury and delay news. I personally feel that truth will out, but it takes a lot less time nowadays. In short time after my email went out, Mark and Bina and I were holding a conversation. On Facebook. And just about everyone who knows me, knows how much I grouse about FB as software, as a company and as a social phenomenon. I'm going to declare a moratorium on my snark toward FB. At least for a time.....

The following are organizations that various principles have been involved in and whether you need to call on these groups or not someday, consider supporting them if you don't already. I've had the good fortune to help out with a couple, if not with funds, then with time, and you better believe, my bank account is going to notice a down-tick after I post this.

Human Rights Watch:

Control Arms of India:

Global Fund for Women:

Amnesty International:

US Campaign for Burma:

Lastly, permit me an indulgence. The bodhisattva Tara is the embodiment of the instaneous salvafic/enlightening activity of the Buddha. It's telling that she's the most loved in the pantheon of buddhas and bodhisattvas in Tibetan Buddhism and that one of her origin stories is that she was a princess bodhisattva in a former lifetime; she was told (by a man, duh) that with all her merit and beneficent activity, she would certainly be reborn as a man and achieve enlightenment.

To which she replied: bullshit. No, she didn't say "bullshit"; she explained gracefully, I'm sure, that she didn't need to and wouldn't, take rebirth as a man in order to achieve Buddhahood. I believe today, I've seen Tara in action both in form and substance as a manifestation of that enlightened activity and refuge.

May all beings flourish!


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Important notice

This is a note that I've posted on Facebook and the request holds good. Leave comments or if you havem't email, please get in touch immediately.

I have a friend in India who's typical of many young women from communities in the interior whose parents are pretty much determining her life against her wishes. I'm being diplomatic in the way I'm putting this. I'm not being melodramatic when I say that she is in a certain degree of physical danger and what I would like, if I may impose on all who read this and feel so compelled, to provide me a few options to give her in how to proceed in getting out of a messy situation.

What I'm looking for are NGOs in India that work with young women at risk. Additionally, she could probably use some words of encouragement, so at the very least, I'd be happy to share that encouragement with her.

I'm assuming most of you have my email and for those of you who don't, pleasepleaseplease leave comments.. Time is of the essence, and I would like to see what I can do to get her to a place of safety, if possible, and if not, to at least let her know that she isn't forgotten.



I will be contacting those of you work in foreign service. This young woman is a perfect example of how sad net position of women in developing nations is. I will be in touch.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

India is not so far away

It's been an eventful month, being gainfully employed again and keeping in touch with just about everyone in India. Dolma, Fleur and Anne and I maintain running dialogues; the guys at BuDan are doing well and Mahendra and Kapil and the LBWF are now getting funding. It's this last that I want to address a bit here.

I think I've written this before, but the business model that Mahendra and Kapil are implementing is one that should serve as a template for the rest of non-profits in India. Maintaining relationships with your donors is possibly the most important part of keeping a non-profit/NGO healthy. Naturally, growing new donor relationships is also necessary, but you have to build and maintain interest in your donor base to really achieve some measure of accomplishment.

I believe that what Leigh and I saw in Mahendra and Kapil is worth nurturing and supporting. This is why I write about it. But here's the additional icing on the cake; if the LBWF can thrive and grow in Bihar, there's every chance that this might prove to be a template for other groups, and possibly foster a stronger sense of community activism both in the state and the rest of the country over a longer period of time.

The principle thrust of the Lord Buddha Welfare Foundation (seriously, this is not a religious organization) is educational. I'll share an update from an email I received from Mahendra a month or so ago:

Last week there was held meeting of parents and teachers in the school in Choraha.

In which we discuss about education, provlems of students. we requested to them to send their children regular in the school. Particularly they get work in the agricultural season. We talk about cleanliness. Some children come school in dirty cloths and without bath

We appeal them to send in clean clothes. We also decide to build fence around the school so we need funding for it. After school teaching period children who live near the school building they play here and make it dirty as well they have broken little bit surface of the bramdah. We have appealed to the people to look after the school building.

Teaching is going very well in the school. It is the raining season here.

At present, we have only about Rs 3300 per month from Finland with which we are paying to the teachers and teaching materials. Teachers are not satisfied with the salary which we are paying.

We need Rs 3000 per teacher per month. We have two teachers. We need a hand pumpand toilet in the school. We need first aid box and one white board.

The computer class is running here but here are problems of electricity so we are not able to keep it regular. We had bought the Inverter in March but it is very helpful; for this we need a generator.

We got funding from Shindo association for the teacher salary and maintainanance for the computer class for 2012-13.There are 18 students are studying computer.

For FCRA we are arranging documents,such as audited report of last three years.We want also make good infra structure because after applying for FCRA officers will come to see the school and then they report to the home ministry Delhi so we want make all needy document which will see the officer.As soon as we will complete it I will inform you.

How we are using money which we get from Finland for Choraha school

Total exp./month

Teacher salary

2 (teachers) 1500 Rs each: Rs 3,000

Markers,brooms,etc: Rs 150

internet: Rs 150

Total Rs 3,300

Our needs estimate


Hand pump (1): Rs12000

toilets (2): Rs 25000

fence: Rs 60,000

Total: Rs 97,000

To put this in perspective, 3,300 rupees is approximately $60 US and 97,000 rupees is about $1560 US.

I think that with a little regular support, the LBWF can do more. At issue, is the FCRA which needs to happen, so that funds can be deposited directly into their bank account. As anyone who has spent time in India knows, this is far more easily said than done. That said, I have wired funds to Kapil, the foundation's secretary; however, knowing how business is done in Bodhgaya, I'm hesitant to wire more than a hundred dollars US. Even that seems like tempting fate. Nevertheless, with even a smallish donor base, I think the foundation can do more than tread water.

Obviously, they're very much connected to the community and this is also key. If the Choraha school is any indication, the villagers want better lives for their kids. I think the Gandhian view of the village as the ideal model for national community in India was sound for the time, but since independence, it's grown obvious that the villages are failing by neglect from that larger national community. Consequently, non-profits and NGOs like the LBWF take up the slack absent government support or other community support.

Additionally, since there is no buy-in or incentives from the governments - either national or local (that I know of) - it's left to members of the international community to support development in India and countries like her. One of the issues that plagues India is the idea that if someone else is willing to help, then the sense of necessity of supporting from within the community is reduced; this is not to say that international aid should be withdrawn, ever. However, it's integral to the survival and growth of a community on whatever scale to support education and educational reform. At some point, it may become obvious to the leaders in the business and government sectors of Bihar and the other states, to invest more in local educational and civic development. This would be enlightened self-interest at a major level and could initiate a new trend in communal growth in areas that need it most.

When I spoke to younger kids in Bodhgaya, Gaya, Varanasi, Patna and elsewhere, I was struck by their concern for Bihar, particularly. But I was also impressed by how they perceived what needed to change at a national level, as well. These are young people who may well leave the area because they are not afforded lives of advancement in their region and that would be the costliest divestment for Bihar. Conversely, if the business leaders and pols in the state were to actively support young people in pursuing education and utilizing that passion for their state and country, things may change radically.

I'm heartened by reports of more sophisticated waste management and environmental initiatives in the state, but one wonders how much of this is real and how much is wishful thinking.

Once again, if anyone is interested in supporting LBWF or just meeting a couple of great people, feel free to contact Mahendra Kumar at He's the director of the LBWF and his personal story of how and why he started it is worth hearing directly from him. In fact, I may ask him and Kapil to contribute their stories to this blog; they're both worthwhile. Kapil Kumar is the secretary and can be reached via Both are young people who have taken the decidedly difficult step of pouring their efforts back into their community when both could be doing other things. But this is what makes community activism in all its formw worth supporting; if we leave it to the other guy, it may not get done. If the other guy steps up to the plate, then we have an example (and an obligation) to follow suit.

Photo by Leigh Kumar


Monday, September 3, 2012

A new blog in town

I've been threatening this for a while. This is a lot of text. In fact, it's all text! But it's about topics that matter a little to me and at the same time, that I've fielded a lot of questions on over the years. Ostensibly, it's about Buddhism, but it's larger concerns are the nature of belief, faith, what it means to be awake, what is psychology or for that matter, what is religion or philosophy.

I can't apologize for the Buddhocentric thrust of the blog, but I'm hoping it will spur discussion and reflection. I touch on some of the controversies that are specific to Buddhism and Buddhist studies, but I think these have their corollaries in other faiths and philosophical movements.

It has a beginning and will have a middle and an end; so this won't go on forever. I probably won't be updating it as much as Points of Return because I actually work off of notes and hours of reflecting before I sit down to add content.

Lastly, it does have a structure. Each post is numbered and should be read in that order. The footnotes and bibliographical info I hope will provide additional resources for those who are interested in these matters, as well as provide sources for each post's content.

I have one more blog I'll eventually launch that will be more general in nature and probably broader in scope, but it'll have more pictures! We like pictures!

In the meantime, here are words:

Friday, August 31, 2012

Reflections in a wine glass

This isn't so much about wine as using wine as an object for concentration, meditation and the act of drinking wine as a movement toward being present.

I'm not the enthusiast I once was, but I enjoy sipping quietly and as mentioned earlier, I also enjoy the conviviality of sipping with friends, a good meal and conversation. This time, the focus will be on what happens when there is just a bottle, a glass, and one person.

Years ago, a friend of mine gave the best advice for approaching wine I'd yet heard. A new person to wine came up to a friend of mine who was volunteering as my assistant at a large tasting. The person asked my friend what he should be tasting. My pal replied, " you tell me". The other person had heard all about the resonances of hazelnut and tints of cherry and gunpowder... Sure, we describe the spectrum of flavors and sensations by analogy, but sometimes our palates aren't broad enough to describe it all and frankly, the description is not the thing or the event or the sensation. It is this last point that provides the starting point here.

Before cracking a bottle for general consumption, I have the role of taster at Graziella's. In most instances, the wines have been fantastic, but I've had to pour a few out, too. Others have been really good, but some bottles more than others. We drank, at different times, the Babaresco above. Across the board, it was one of the best Italian reds I've ever had. But the last bottle seemed better than the other two. Why?

I wondered if I enjoyed it more or found more to it because it was the last one. On the other hand, it garnered some fine comments, so it might well have been a better bottle than the others. I'm not going into too much detail about it, other than to say it was dense with a range of colors, an almost velvet texture and exceptional nose, neither overtly florid nor overwhelmingly jammy as some can be.

What I have in mind is the quality of attention that I have to pay to the process. The attention is pointed outward to the sight, sound and scent of what's in the glass. Those parts of me sharpen and isolate qualities that I later verbalize, removing me from the immediate experience. Therefore, I tend to just be more aware and write, speak later. In the moment, whatever happens happens.

But the most salient thing is that there is no taster at a certain point. There is only taste. Or smell. Or sight. The labels and critique come later when communication has to come into play. Then the words and descriptions come back. So how to determine the drinkability after the fact?

It doesn't take long, for one thing. Sustained awareness requires practice. Attention to the moment is a learned skill. We need it more than we realize and it's not part of our lives often enough. In one sense, it's silly that we come alive over a sip of some liquid, but that's just it; in that moment, we sense there is more going on than mere consumption. If we bring this same awareness to our internal landscape or mindscape, we have the opportunity of the possibility of being fully present.

This Pomerol was out of the world. How do I know this? How does one determine the fineness or lack thereof of anything or any thing? Our encounters with phenomena are formed by our histories of comparison, emotional content, our histories, memories, such that we are constantly engaged in comparing, measuring one thing against another, one person against another. "I like this, I don't like that". We are rarely or barely capable of encountering and accepting a thing or a fellow human on their own merits, without judgement, without criticism. For food and drink, this may be necessary; I've poured out wines because they had turned very far into tannic wastes of steely liquid with the slight vestige of flavor reduced to something like wine, but closer to paint thinner. No point in poisoning people.

I've served wines past their primes, though, because they're not bad. Maybe not necessarily good, but not bad, because this is an education in what wine is about. We learn that a once great bottle can still be okay after decades and paired with the right food, serves as a supporting character in the dinner play that night. We know when we've encountered something of quality, though, because we cease to be in its presence without effort.

Intentionally tasting is still an act with effort. It becomes less so and can still be executed with less effort, but when we stumble across something truly great, in any phenomenon - be it art, architecture, literature or wine, even - we become subsumed in it and give ourselves over to the situation at hand. Oftentimes this is with joy, but if we're lucky, with awe. No, I have never had an awesome wine, in that sense. No wine has affected me like St. Lorenz in Nuremberg or the Himalayas, but I've had a few that have added a kind of happiness to a moment, and that is something.

The last lesson we can take away from this is that wine is ephemeral, like all other things in the world. What makes it a bit more precious is that it exists to be experienced most intimately; we have to take it in, we have to consume it. And then, it's gone! But the lingering gift is the fading flavor and the memories that have been created from being awake and aware for however long that moment lasted.

This last lesson can be applied to every part of our lives. Can we bring that same quality of attention and awareness to our jobs, our relationships, our times when we are most alone? Sounds easy, doesn't it? I highly recommend trying it. See how long you can be aware, being attentive to an object and then to yourself and finding out where awareness has passed into fantasy or daydreaming. How long before we're back looking over a shopping list in our mind and paying no attention to the breath that sustains us moment by moment. Yes, there is a time for shopping lists, but before long the few moments that the shopping list requires have turned into minutes and hours of imagery, memory, and a phantasmagoria of thoughts, judgements and rabbit holes of association. Where are we, then?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fall is in the air

The past few weeks have been busy, fun and now and again, tranquil. Harvard Medical School (HMS) is wonderful and I look forward to collaborating with and supporting my colleagues with some degree of aplomb, precision or at least, competence, in the coming months. Graziella continues to be a great hostess and support, herself. Her house is a perfect place for meditation and gentling, to borrow a word Robert Fripp seems fond of.

Inasmuch as I'm enjoying this phase of my life, there is a ripple of some excited sensation running under the surface of the day. It may just be a kind of energetic store that will channel into other outlets; I seem to have a good bit of vigor that I'm not certain what the origin is. I believe it is in large part owing to the more regular routine of quietude and trying to be more present/open to presence than anything else. There isn't so much questioning of "what next" and more of a settled sense of direction in the short term balanced by a set of longer term initiatives and the eventual return to India for a longer stay. This latter may take several months of preparation and saving and perhaps as much as two years before attempting to smoothly wind down operations here in the states.

This latter may surprise people who think I was just going to turn around and split after a few months, but there are mitigating factors. One, is that if I want to set longer term roots down overseas, this is going to require some degree of deliberation and project development from my side. Two, I have a couple of projects I want to see through here, including a suite of drawings and paintings. No specific subject, per se, but I suspect themes will arise unbidden or rise freely of their own causes and conditions. Three, a friend of mine is back from Taiwan from studying with one of the great IMA teachers of our time; I'm feeling a need to return to that field of study strongly. Four, and not to be taken lightly, is that I don't want to leave HMS hanging. There are some really exciting projects and I want to see those up and running with a process established to provide smooth transition from one stage to another. Moreover, the caliber of people involved is so high, I'd be an idiot to leave after only a few months.

So what of India? I'm planning a return in December for a three week trip. Not very much, but I want to see everyone I can, check up on the LBWF and the kids and refresh/renew.

Life, of course, can shift and change rules from any number of directions. Again, the point is to be aware and observe without attachment or judgement. It's not constant or consistent, even, but it happens. Another unbidden, if cultivated phenomenon. Art and meditation are two sides of the same process. As Kumar Frantzis pointed out some years ago: one works outside in, the other works inside out.

Some pics along the way.
The fountain at Brattle and Sparks Streets.
House next door.
The Charles River en route to evening's rest.
Armenian church in Cambridge.
Reminders of mass insanity. May there be peace.
Peace, indeed.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Hopefully, someone, somewhere will catch that reference. In the meantime, the bad bottles have grown less and the damn good all the more.

Something to bear in mind is that while you can drink wine all by itself, I can't stress enough how much better it is with food.

And the food doesn't have to be fancy. This is not the meal that was paired with the following bottles, but it gives an idea of how dining al fresco is a genuine joy. Good conversation, open air and fruit and cheese don't disappoint.

That said, these were matched with a ginger salmon, fresh corn and veggies grilled to perfection and before anyone can retort: yep, red wine. Trust me, this was a good marriage.

I'm not a huge fan of Chiantis, but I've been surprised at how long they live and how subtle the flavors of older ones can be. The Brolio at 16 was ready to be drunk. It had a nice understated pepper tone and a bit of a tannic bite, but it was light enough to not overpower the food. The Le Volte Barolo was a stunner at a year younger and there is one bottle left as I write this.

So what's the deal of pairing red wine with fish? One, there was no chilled white around and two, I go by other details. In this case, salmon is a pretty big fish when it comes to flavor. This was either mitigated or enhanced by the ginger that was rubbed into the fish. Plus, we had tri-colored rotini in a lighter arrabbiata sauce. Somewhere between the spice of the pasta and the zing of the ginger, a red (or two) made sense.

The second bottle, had more heft and was more solid and bold in flavor. The earlier La Volte had been fine, also from the same year ('97, I think); however, this married the meal well.

The following night, we cracked these two:

The Barbaresco and the Rossi di Montalcino were both fine, but my heart was won by the former. Redolent with plum and hints of chocolate, I was ready for a nap. The Ucceliera was good, but I preferred the Moccagni. As for the Ucceliera, it too was flavorful, but struck me as one-note, perhaps fading from it long years in the bottle. I'm not complaining.
There is certainly more to follow, but I'll call it a night. Well, almost.
I've returned to Harvard and have landed at the Medical School and have to say, my new colleagues are outstanding. My former colleagues are as well, but it is time to make new memories.
We had an all-staff retreat where some participated in simulations at the Gilbert Museum of Medicine and Medical Innovation. Dr. Jim Gordon, not to be confused with a city police commissioner of the same name, walked us through the simulation and Phillip Johnson got us over to the Bullfinch Building for a look at the ether dome and how it got its name.
Here are three of those remarkably medically adept colleagues consulting with Dr. Gordon over a simulated patient (though, when you come around the corner and his eyes are blinking and you see the chest rising and falling, a double-take is certainly likely).

The Ether Dome, perhaps the alternate title for a Mad Max movie:

The lecture hall:

Looking south to Boston:

Looking north to Cambridge:

The Zakim Bridge in the distance:

The Charles River:

A couple of other vantage points.

Dunno. Just like it.

Lastly, I think I'll toast your health:

Akira the Wonder Cat says "cheers!"