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27 JULY, 2015

The World We Live In: An Extraordinary Reality-Check

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The chilling human story behind an almost-statistic.

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their magnificently prescient 1970 conversation on race. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” And yet the most pernicious seedbed of trouble is a world in which some people, but not others, are routinely told how they deserve to be treated, then routinely treated that way, based on criteria of visible difference that have nothing to do with the invisibilia of who they are. For, as a legendary Zen teacher observed, sameness and difference are constructs of the mind caught in the illusion of separateness — concepts that keep us from our expansive humanity.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly, nor with more harrowing honesty, than Traffic Stop — a breath-stopping animated short film from the always-excellent StoryCorps:

My whole worldview changed that night.

Complement with the wonderful StoryCorps film A Good Man, then revisit Dr. King on how the Ancient Greek notion of “agape” can help us cut off the chain of hate and Mead and Baldwin’s indispensable, urgently important A Rap on Race.

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27 JULY, 2015

A Zen Master Explains Death and the Life-Force to a Child and Outlines the Three Essential Principles of Zen Mind

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“Zen practice … requires great faith, great courage, and great questioning.”

If death is so enormous a mystery that we remain unable to wrap our grownup minds around it, despite comfort from our great poets and consolation from our great philosophers, how are tiny humans to make sense of it all? Although there exist some exceptional children’s books about loss and grief, explaining death to a child remains one of the most challenging tasks for a human being to undertake.

Because the language of Zen, holding great complexity of experience in great simplicity of expression, is so organically suited to the child — children, after all, have a way of leaning their minds toward the profound by way of the simple — it is perhaps the best language we have in offering a befitting explanation, as much to ourselves as to our young ones.

That’s what the great Korean-born Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa (August 1, 1927–November 30, 2004) offers in one of the chapters in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (public library) — a tiny treasure of a book originally published in 1976, irreverent yet immensely spiritually invigorating, collecting his correspondence and conversations with Zen students in the West.

Soen-sa recounts his conversation with Gita, the seven-year-old daughter of one of his students at the Cambridge Zen Center, after the death of the center’s beloved cat, cleverly named Katz. (“KATZ!” is the transcription of the famous Buddhist belly-shout, used as a way of focusing energy and intention during Zen practice.) Katz had died after a long illness and was given a traditional Buddhist burial, but the little girl remained troubled by his death. One day after practice, she came to the great Zen teacher for an explanation. He relays the exchange:

“What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”

Soen-sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother’s belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?” Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing. It is like in a cookie factory. Many different kinds of cookies are made — lions, tigers, elephants, houses, people. They all have different shapes and different names, but they are all made from the same dough and they all taste the same. So all the different things that you see — a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor — all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

Illustration by Edward Gorey from 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats' by T.S. Eliot. Click image for more.

With an eye to our tendency to mistake a thing’s name for its thingness, Soen-sa answers by urging the little girl to contact the universal life-force of the metaphorical cookie dough:

“People give them many different names. But in themselves, they have no names. When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes. But when you are not thinking, all things are the same. There are no words for them. People make the words. A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’ People say, ‘This is a cat.’ The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun.’

So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’, how should you answer?”

“I shouldn’t use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words. So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me. “

“What is Buddha?”

Soen-sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of. You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard. Then she laughed.

Soen-sa ends the anecdote with an exchange intended to be funny, but in fact a tragic testament to contemporary Western education being a force of industrialized specialization, deliberately fragmenting the unity of all things and deconditioning our inner wholeness:

As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I’m not going to answer that way when I’m in school. I’m going to give regular answers!” Soen-sa laughed.

Illustration from 'The Book of Memory Gaps' by Cecilia Ruiz. Click image for more.

In another section of the book, Soen-sa examines the principles and practices that help us cultivate the pre-thinking mind necessary for truly tasting the metaphorical cookie dough of the universal life-force. Responding to a letter from a Zen beginner, a young woman named Patricia who had trouble grasping the value and very notion of “don’t-know mind,” he writes:

Throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn’t know… Your before-thinking mind, my before-thinking mind, all people’s before-thinking minds are the same. This is your substance. Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe become one. So the tree, the mountain, the cloud, and you become one… The mind that becomes one with the universe is before thinking. Before thinking there are no words. “Same” and “different” are opposites words; they are from the mind that separates all things.

A few months later, in another letter to Patricia, he explores the three pillars of Zen’s don’t-know mind:

Zen practice … requires great faith, great courage, and great questioning.

What is great faith? Great faith means that at all times you keep the mind which decided to practice, no matter what. It is like a hen sitting on her eggs. She sits on them constantly, caring for them and giving them warmth, so that they will hatch. If she becomes careless or negligent, the eggs will not hatch and become chicks. So Zen mind means always and everywhere believing in myself…

Great courage … means bringing all your energy to one point. It is like a cat hunting a mouse. The mouse has retreated into its hole, but the cat waits outside the hole for hours on end without the slightest movement. It is totally concentrated on the mouse-hole. This is Zen mind — cutting off all thinking and directing all your energy to one point.

Next — great questioning… If you question with great sincerity, there will only be don’t-know mind.

Complement Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, indispensable in its entirety, with the great D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character, Alan Watts on death, and beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to do “hugging meditation.”

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24 JULY, 2015

Amelia Earhart on Sticking Up for Yourself, in a Remarkable Letter of Advice to Her Younger Sister

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“Adult human beings owe as much to themselves as to others, for by asserting individual rights, the baser natures of those who have them are held in check.”

Amelia Earhart (b. July 24, 1897) endures as one of the most beloved cultural figures in history — a trailblazing aviator, a model of the modern independent woman, and an icon of the spirit of adventure, her myth made all the more alluring by her mysterious disappearance. From the out-of-print treasure Letters from Amelia: An Intimate Portrait of Amelia Earhart (public library) — which also gave us her lucid and elevating ideas on education, personal growth, and human nature — comes a remarkable letter of advice she sent to her younger sister Muriel in 1937, shortly before Amelia disappeared over the Pacific never to be seen again.

What occasioned the letter were Muriel’s marital troubles — her husband, Albert, had become a gambling addict and was wasting the family’s funds away, including the money Earhart frequently sent to her sister. Although Albert was widely beloved by the town, never abusive to Muriel and their children, and didn’t drink or smoke, his gambling problem had started taking a significant toll on the family and on Muriel’s contentment.

The morning before her own wedding six years earlier, Amelia had sent her fiancé, George Putnam, a magnificent letter outlining her conditions for marriage, decades ahead of its time. Now, she saw it as her responsibility to instill in her sister the same kind of insistence on personal agency and financial independence:

Dear Muriel,

I am deeply sorry to hear further reports of your unhappy domestic situation. I had hoped that the money GPP and I advanced would help Albert grow up…

You have taken entirely too much on the chin for your own good or that of any man who holds the purse strings. I sometimes feel that adult human beings owe as much to themselves as to others, for by asserting individual rights, the baser natures of those who have them are held in check. That is often very hard to do. One hesitates to bring on a quarrel when it can be avoided by giving in. But perhaps one definite assertion will prevent the slow accumulation of a sense of superiority in a person who really should not claim superiority. Given a little power over another, little natures swell to hideous proportions. It is hopeless to watch a character change of this kind in one you have cared for.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from 'The Book of Mean People' by Toni and Slade Morrison. Click image for more.

After advising her sister to obtain a legal separation in order to ensure her financial independence and encouraging her to move to the East Coast closer to her, Earhart adds an observation that reads rather like Anne Lamott, transcending the particular situation to speak to a universal truth:

Human crises have a way of happening at inconvenient times.

Although Muriel didn’t end up leaving Albert, Earhart’s advice seems to have made a difference — under Muriel’s threat to leave, Albert eventually changed his ways. The family’s financial situation stabilized and for the remainder of their lives they were known as a happy couple by their community. Muriel was able to go back to school, completing her education and becoming a successful and beloved high school teacher.

Letters from Amelia is a fantastic read in its totality — the most intimate and direct glimpse of Earhart’s inner world. What a pity that it perishes out of print — here’s to hoping that there exists a publisher invested enough in cultural preservation to bring it back.

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24 JULY, 2015

Robert Graves on Love and Lust

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“Love is really a recognition of truth, a recognition of another person’s integrity and truth.”

Poet, novelist, mythologist, essayist, and translator Robert Graves (July 24, 1895–December 7, 1985) is among the most influential artists of the past century — a piercing mind carried on the wings of a thoroughly free spirit, an unflinching idealist with a certain Mad Hatter quality to his genius. Jorge Luis Borges called him “a soul above.” Virginia Woolf mistook him for a tabloid reporter or a nosy fan and nearly chased him out when he showed up on her door step, “a bolt eyed blue shirted shockheaded hatless man in a blue overcoat.”

In 1963, Graves sat down with Italian actress, photojournalist and sculptor Gina Lollobrigida — one the most prominent European actresses of the era and an international sex symbol — for an invigorating conversation, later included in the wholly rewarding anthology Conversations with Robert Graves (public library). Although they discussed a wide range of subjects — from poetry to gender to the evils of commercialism in literature — the conversation somehow kept circling back to love, the subject of much of Graves’s poetry.

Robert Graves by Peter Stark (National Portrait Gallery)

Nearly half a century after he penned his magnificent “Advice to Lovers,” Graves adds to history’s greatest definitions of love and tells Lollobrigida:

Love and honor. They are the two great things, and now they’re dimmed and blighted. Today, love is just sex and sentimentality. Love is really a recognition of truth, a recognition of another person’s integrity and truth in a way that is compatible with — that makes both of you light up when you recognize the quality in the other. That’s what love is. It’s a recognition of singularity… And love is giving and giving and giving … not looking for any return. Until you do that, you can’t love.

This crucial difference between love and lust preoccupied Graves in much of his poetry, nowhere more so than in one of his early poems from the 1919 volume The Treasure Box, written when Graves was in his early twenties and later included in the indispensable posthumous tome Robert Graves: The Complete Poems (public library):

THE KISS

Are you shaken, are you stirred
By a whisper of love,
Spellbound to a word
Does Time cease to move,
Till her calm grey eye
Expands to a sky
And the clouds of her hair
Like storms go by?

Then the lips that you have kissed
Turn to frost and fire,
And a white-steaming mist
Obscures desire:
So back to their birth
Fade water, air, earth,
And the First Power moves
Over void and dearth.

Is that Love? no, but Death,
A passion, a shout,
The deep in-breath,
The breath roaring out,
And once that is flown,
You must lie alone,
Without hope, without life,
Poor flesh, sad bone.

Complement with Rilke on love, Adrienne Rich on how relationships refine our truths, and E.B. White and James Thurber on how to tell love from passion, then revisit Graves’s little-known and immeasurably lovely collaboration with Maurice Sendak.

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