Bob Schwartz

Mitt Romney Midterm Mask

Mitt Romney Mask

When there’s not a big election with big characters, Halloween masks are not overwhelmingly political. Walking the Walgreens aisles a few days before the holiday, I saw only one official or candidate hanging from a hook: Mitt Romney at the bargain price of $9.99 (see above).

Best guess is that after 2012 there was a surplus of these, and with no big interest in anybody anyway right now, 2014 seemed like as good a time as any to dump them. Or maybe Walgreens is more politically savvy than most, and just wants to get on the latest Romney bandwagon first. Of course the mask doesn’t much look like Romney or anybody else in particular (maybe a bit like Prince Charles), so you could just wear it as a generic face, and when asked, take your pick.

As for Mitt Romney being  surrouneded on the shelf by scary skulls, sexy kittens, the Phantom of the Opera, etc., he does look out of place. But when Halloween 2016 rolls around, who knows?

Homeless Kodo on Religion

Kodo Sawaki

A short while ago I wrote about a new book, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo. I thought it was the last I would say about it.

It is a book best read in bites. I’ve had to resist the temptation after each bite to say, “you’ve gotta taste this” and “you’ve gotta taste this.” This isn’t a blog about Zen (or about anything else in particular, for that matter). And by the time I got through pointing to all the chapters worthy of attention, I would have quoted practically the whole book.

I’ve written before about how religion is both essential in some form and so badly misused and abused. Others have said it much better. Here, Kodo Sawaki, in literary “conversation” with his student Kosho Uchiyama and with Uchiyama’s student Shohaku Okumura, talks about the value of religion, properly defined and understood.

 

Religion Is Life

KODO SAWAKI:

How we live our everyday lives has to be the main concern of religion.

KOSHO UCHIYAMA:

On television, it’s permissible to show scenes of explicit sex and crimes, including murder. Big posters of nude women can be posted on the street. Although kids see these TV shows and posters, not many people worry about this. At the same time, it’s illegal to teach religion in public school. To me this is one of the mysteries of twentieth-century Japan.

Maybe people think that “religion” means established sects, superstition, or fanaticism. It’s certainly true that if an innocent child is influenced by one-sided, fixed doctrines, this will lead to great problems. So one might say it’s understandable that the government bans religious education in public schools. On the other hand, if religion means teachings about the most important matter of our lives—how we should live—then we should worry about the next generation, growing up in a society without any religious education, yet constantly confronted with images of sex and violence. If things continue like this, we’ll find young people becoming more and more destructive.

I hope the time will come for religion to be taught in school without indoctrination, but as a lesson about the most important question of life: how to live.

KODO SAWAKI:

“Religion” is to live out the ever fresh self, which is not deceived by anything.

Religion must not be a system of dogma. Religion is life. Religion has to function as life. Worshiping sutras is not enough. Religion must manifest itself freely and inexhaustibly in all activities of life, everywhere and always.

SHOHAKU OKUMURA:

When the government supported religious institutions and forced people to adopt them, this caused terrible problems. An example is the State Shinto from the Meiji era to the end of World War II. When political power and religious authority are combined, there can be no freedom. I don’t think that’s what Uchiyama Roshi is recommending.

As I mentioned in chapter 2, the Japanese equivalent of the word “religion” is shukyo. This word originally referred to Buddhism: the teaching, or kyo, about fundamental reality, or shu. Sawaki Roshi and Uchiyama Roshi used the word “religion” to mean awakening to reality, rather than a system of belief and worship within a particular tradition.

Uchiyama Roshi thought the most important questions of our life should be taught in schools as the subject “Human Life.” He even wrote a textbook as an example. In that book he remarked:

When the time comes to teach “Human Life” in schools, I think the word “religion” should be eliminated. When we use the word in its traditional meaning . . . a strange atmosphere is created. This is because traditional religions always set up some authority beyond our understanding and force people to believe certain myths and doctrines. And yet in our life as the self that is born and dies naked, fundamentally no such authority and belief are necessary. We just need to straightforwardly see the reality of life as the self and teach how to live based on that reality.

Uchiyama Roshi’s searching, studying, and practicing were ways to study the “self.” He wasn’t interested in becoming a believer of a traditional religion. In his search for truth, he found some people in the Buddhist tradition who had the same attitude. One was the Buddha, who said, “The self is the only foundation of the self.” Another was Dogen, who said, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self.” Sawaki Roshi emphasized zazen practice as “the self selfing the self.” Throughout his life, Uchiyama Roshi continued to read the Bible as one of the ways to study the self. In his final days, he said, “I am neither a Buddhist nor a Christian. I am just who I am.

The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo
Wisdom Publications

The Road of Life: A New Musical

Road of Life

Some of our greatest and most popular musicals have been set against the background of darkest history. Les Miserables. Miss Saigon. Fiddler on the Roof. Cabaret. In the context of adversity, shining stories of love and human spirit stand out starkly, movingly—and musically.

The German Siege of Leningrad, lasting 900 days between 1941 and 1944, has been relatively ignored when we think about the atrocities of that atrocious war. A million people died over the course of more than two years, and millions of others suffered attacks and depravations that brought them to the brink and marked their lives forever.

Ann Reid writes in Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II:

[T]he siege of Leningrad, the deadliest blockade of a city in human history…. Other modern sieges – those of Madrid and Sarajevo – lasted longer, but none killed even a tenth as many people. Around thirty-five times more civilians died in Leningrad than in London’s Blitz; four times more than in the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima put together.

Hope, wrote Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers. A songbird who lifted the people of Leningrad during this cold hell was a poet named Olga Burggolts. Each day she broadcast from Leningrad’s only radio station—reporting events, reading her poems, exemplifying the imperative of survival. Just as the siege is too forgotten, so she is not very well-known or celebrated for her achievement. But as much as we may dismiss poetry as an idle pastime, maybe nowhere at no time has a poet done more to affect so many—and to help those people withstand the brutality of history.

The team of Jay Jacques and Mark Chimsky have created a bold and uplifting new musical intertwining this big history with the individual lives, loves, and losses that are its true components. It is an invitation to see this chapter of the not-so-distant past in a new light, one that demonstrates in theater and song how dreams rise from the depths. To find out more, please visit The Road of Life. Read the story, listen to the music, and be inspired.

Ebola Stress Test

Kaci Hickox

Stress tests. We see them in medicine, in banking, in construction.

How well will the patient’s heart perform when he is on a treadmill? How sound are a bank’s finances in the worst case scenario? How will building materials stand up under maximum pressure?

Public crises are stress tests. So far, Ebola is the latest demonstration of the tendency for our civic infrastructure to crack—or show signs of it—under pressure.

Quietly, where no one can hear, some leaders and citizens are probably worried that if this was a real Ebola outbreak in the U.S., and not the thankfully tiny and so far isolated problem it is, we would fall apart. Utterly fail the test.

The latest episode concerns this weekend’s rapid response by multiple states to Craig Spencer, a doctor returning from West Africa and becoming sick with Ebola in New York City last week. In addition to New York and New Jersey, other states are now or may be requiring returning health care workers to be quarantined.

There is a problem: none of these states appear to have thought through any of it—most especially the practical aspects of whisking someone coming home from a heroic medical mission into isolation that is supposed to be comfortable, suitable, sensible, and sensitive under the circumstances. It now seems the scenario is act first, plan later.

Nurse Kaci Hickox is the first one caught in this trap. She is not sick and is showing no symptoms. Arriving at Newark Airport Friday night, she was taken to a tent behind a hospital, with a portable toilet, no shower, no television, and little cellphone reception. She castigated all involved, particularly Governor Chris Christie, who said she had symptoms and was sick, when she hadn’t and wasn’t. She plans a federal lawsuit challenging the quarantine.

“I also want to be treated with compassion and humanity, and I don’t feel I’ve been treated that way in the past three days. I think this is an extreme that is really unacceptable. I feel like my basic human rights have been violated.”

(Update: Governor Christie has relented, allowing her to return home to Maine, where, if you read between the lines, the message is that it will then be Maine’s problem to monitor her and where, if something goes wrong, it will be on their head.)

We seem to have forgotten how to solve problems, enthralled by our own voice either positing solutions, making points, or complaining. Or maybe it is that this is America, with a history of being bigger, stronger, smarter, and most of all, righter, in all circumstances. Even if that was ever true, politics—in the big sense of privileging positions over effective and thoughtful answers—has poisoned that well. Worthy questions and deliberate solutions are rejected out of hand because of the source, because they don’t fit some preconceived notion or program, or simply because they won’t help win or not lose elections.

Whether or not quarantine of heroic Ebola care givers returning from West Africa is a good idea, it is certainly a good idea to evaluate and plan exactly how you are going to practically handle it. Maybe, though, we shouldn’t be at all surprised. In recent years we did, after all, send hundreds of thousands of troops abroad, and when the promised rewards for their heroic service came due, we seemed unable to fulfill and, worse, were suddenly unenthusiastic about keeping the promise anyway.

If this is a war on Ebola, we better make sure we are committed to those who are sacrificing, part of which is actual planning and resourcing, not ignorant and reflexive pontificating and politicking. So far, this is looking too much like some of our other recent wars. Maybe we can use this as an opportunity to get better and be better at it.

The Tower of Babel and Technological Humility

Tower of Babel - Bruegel the Elder

This week’s Torah reading, Genesis 6:9-11:32, includes two very different STEM achievements.

The first is the story of Noah, with a boat big enough to hold representatives of everything that lives (but does not swim). The ark’s purpose is to save all life in the face of an ultimate disaster. It works.

The other story is the Tower of Babel, with an immensely tall structure that has no obvious or express practical purpose. It is an early and elegant literary example of “because we can” philosophy. Think of it as a giant cosmic finger by some very arrogant builders.

Giving the finger is always rude and dangerous. Here, though, there is no violent retribution and no smiting by flood or fire. Instead, the result of that technological arrogance is eternal confusion and failure to communicate.

The Hebrew Bible has lots to say about human behavior, psychology, and spirituality. But no story may have more to tell us about life today than the Tower of Babel, especially when read in conjunction with Noah.

If we think we can build a boat big enough to save us from a particular catastrophe, maybe we can. But even then, as the rest of the post-Noah biblical stories and the rest of world history demonstrate, staying dry in the flood is just the beginning of our problems.

And if we think we can just show how smart we are by concocting a bunch of oversized technological wonders, monuments of pride, we may find ourselves, as the saying goes, too clever by half.

Consequences are inevitable. Purposes are necessary. Really big towers are awesomely cool. Just be sure you know, more or less, what you’re doing and why.


And all the earth was one language, oe set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” And the brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And the LORD said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.” And the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building the city. Therefore it is called Babel, for there the LORD made the language of all the earth babble. And from there the LORD scattered them over all the earth.

Genesis 11:1-9
The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary
Robert Alter

Coming Out: How Cosmetic Surgery Is Like Being Gay

South Park - Tom Cruise

In case you haven’t noticed, the noise surrounding Renee Zellweger’s about face sounds just like the conversations we have about celebrities being gay: did she or didn’t she, is he or isn’t he?

There are three kinds of cosmetic surgery: the public kind that can be explained as the result of exercise and nutrition (body shaping and toning), the public kind that is hard to explain that way (obviously enhanced breasts), and the private kind that is (sort of) meant to be private (vagina rejuvenation, penis enhancement).

Questions about the public kinds can be met with a variety of replies, all of them valid:

Yes.
No.
No comment.
It’s none of your business.

This remarkably parallels the situation of those who are “suspected” of being gay. Sometimes it is made public, sometimes it is kept private, sometimes it is treated matter-of-factly: it is what it is, it’s my life, take it or leave it, so what?

Admitting to plastic surgery is in many contexts (including and especially entertainment) as delicate as admitting to being gay—even if the fact is relatively obvious. One of the many reasons the late Joan Rivers was so beloved, why what was obnoxious in others was endearing in her, is that the fact of her many plastic surgeries was a prime subject of her own bits. As with other topics, she just gave you the finger, laughed, and had you laughing too.

In the scheme of all but the tiniest matters, Renee Zellweger’s face is inconsequential. But as with all the tongue wagging about the sexual preferences of some celebrity, it exposes unanswered and mostly unspoken questions about how people feel about certain things. Many people still don’t know exactly what they think about major or minor voluntary body mod, any more than they may have totally resolved their deepest puzzlement about homosexuality, no matter how genuinely progressive and tolerant they are.

For better or worse, we are actually seeing a bit of that in the Renee Zellweger situation: along with an avalanche of typically mindless chatter, there has been some useful discussion about the nature of celebrity, privacy, aging, feminism, and health. It is unfortunate that this has to fall on a single individual’s shoulders, with so much collateral and gratuitous hurt. But if we are careful, we might just learn something, mostly about ourselves. How rare and valuable an opportunity is that?

Illustration: The obvious illustration for this post would be yet another photo of Renee Zellweger, which neither the world nor she need. Instead, above is a frame from South Park, the 2005 episode called Trapped in the Closet. It is widely considered the show’s most controversial episode, which is saying something. In it, the fearless and brilliant and culturally incorrect Parker and Stone managed to skewer (eviscerate?) both Scientology and the rumored homosexuality of Hollywood stars. In this scene, Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet (where he will ultimately be joined by John Travolta). Nicole Kidman, his then-wife, is trying to talk him out. As I said, culturally incorrect, and probably intolerant and spiteful in light of all that’s written above. But it is funny, and not surprisingly, it is the equally fearless and funny Joan Rivers who also took on the very same subject. Laughing and thinking. What a combo.

The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo

Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo

Even if you are not interested in Zen or Buddhism, this is your invitation to discover one of the most fascinating and overlooked figures in 20th century religion.

If you are a student of Zen, and think you have a broad overview of Zen in the last century, you may wonder why you’ve never heard of Kodo Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965), let alone read any of his work. Up to now, circumstances worked against that. But that has changed with the just-published The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo from Wisdom Publications. You owe it to yourself to fill that gap.

Lineage is an essential element of Zen, a tracing of the conceptual DNA that reaches back to Bodhidharma, who in the 5th or 6th century BCE legendarily brought Buddhism from India to China. Thus begins the story of Chinese Ch’an (later Japanese Zen) Buddhism.

In the modern Western incarnations of Zen, some lineages are well-known. Arguably the most popular of all teachers in the West is Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who founded the San Francisco Zen Center. The first collection of his teachings, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, remains the bestselling introduction to Zen practice in English. It is clear and captivating, and it captured many, including me years ago.

Maybe not as well-known, but equally important, is the work of Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. Published at about the same time as Zen Mind, Uchiyama Roshi’s Approach to Zen lacked the design and print sophistication of Suzuki’s book. Instead of Zen Mind’s colorful cover, calligraphy, and fine typesetting, Approach to Zen is plain brown, with simple illustrations hand-drawn by Uchiyama Roshi.

Approach to Zen

Proving that you can’t judge a book by its cover or color, Approach to Zen is an excellent primer on practice and philosophy. It was later expanded into the even more valuable Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice (where happily a few of the original drawings are kept). If you are Zen-curious, you could do no better than starting with the pair of Zen Mind and Opening the Hand of Thought.

Opening the Hand of Thought

Sawaki Roshi was Uchiyama Roshi’s teacher. Uchiyama Roshi’s best-known student is Shohaku Okumura, whose practice includes being one of the premier translators of Zen texts—now including the work of Sawaki Roshi. In this new book, these three teachers, three points on an extraordinary line, come together.

Zen masters often have complex lives, but more than most, Sawaki Roshi’s story defies quick summary. The emblematic thing to know about his life and teaching is that he was an iconoclast. It is conventional for great teachers to take over a temple, so that they can effectively (and perhaps comfortably) transmit their teachings. Sawaki refused that possibility; he was, as a teacher for decades, without a home.

People call me Homeless Kodo, but I don’t think they particularly intend to disparage me. They say “homeless” probably because I never had a temple or owned a house. Anyway, all human beings without exception are in reality homeless. It’s a mistake to think we have a solid home.

Zen is renowned for straight talk, even when that talk seems to be crooked, wandering around so that the undeniable point remains out of easy reach or reason. In these excerpts, Kodo Sawaki employs the straightest of straight talk—no less philosophically deep than the most puzzling of messages, but as punishing and sometimes sarcastic as a punch in the face.

When people are alone, they’re not so bad. However, when a group forms, paralysis occurs; people become totally foolish and cannot distinguish good from bad. Their minds are numbed by the group. Because of their desire to belong and even to lose themselves, some pay membership fees. Others work on advertising to attract people and intoxicate them for some political, spiritual, or commercial purpose.

I keep some distance from society, not to escape it but to avoid this kind of paralysis. To practice zazen is to become free of this group stupidity.


Some opinions have passed their prime and lost relevance. For instance, when grownups lecture children, they often simply repeat ready-made opinions. They merely say, “Good is good; bad is bad.” When greens go to seed, they become hard and fibrous. They aren’t edible anymore. We should always see things with fresh eyes!

Often people say, “This is valuable!” But what’s really valuable? Nothing. When you die, you have to leave everything behind. Even the national treasures in Kyoto and Nara will sooner or later perish. It’s not a problem even if they all burn down.

Equal to the value of these teachings is the layering of commentary on Sawaki Roshi by his student Uchiyama Roshi and by Uchiyama Roshi’s student Shohaku Okumura. Layered commentary is common not only to Zen, but to many religious and philosophical traditions. Yet this is remarkable for combining erudite exposition about the teachings and Zen with what can only be described as filial respect and affection—that is, love. Though two of the three participants have died, you feel as if you are present for an enlightened three-way conversation among grandfather, father, and son.

You will wish that it would never end. In a sense, it never does or has to. You can take the treasures you find here and incorporate them into your life, your thinking, and, if you are inclined that way, into your practice.

A horse and a cat once discussed the question, “What is happiness?” They couldn’t reach any agreement.

In the Beginning, Again

Genesis Illustrated Cover

This Sabbath, the annual cycle of Torah readings starts all over again. Again. Back to the beginning. Genesis (Breisheit), Chapter 1.

In the beginning….Well, you probably know how it goes. But don’t be jaded by familiarity. And don’t avoid it or be put off by belief that this and all the Genesis stories that follow are neither history nor science. So what? These are big stories and we need big stories. Not to be used as clubs to beat us up (though there is that), but as invitations and portals to bigger things. If not, then why are so many watching Hunger Games or Downtown Abbey?

Instead of learned discourse, here is something much more fun. R. Crumb, one of the great comic artists (beginning with his classic underground comics in the 1960s—Mr. Natural, etc.), published his Book of Genesis Illustrated in 2010.

Genesis Illustrated Back Cover

(If you don’t like pictures or Crumb’s illustrations, you might just try the excellent translation of Genesis that Crumb used, by Robert Alter)

Take a moment, whatever your inclinations, and allow yourself to be awed. Whatever you think is awesome, the sudden appearance of everything is more awesome than that, however you explain it. And for those who are waiting to see the Big Guy with the long beard–you know you’ve just gotta have it–here it is.

Genesis Illustrated Page 1

Can’t See the Trees for the Sky

Dawn Sky

Sometimes we look a little too high.

The sky at dawn was unusual and spectacular this morning, a horizon of heavy clouds tinged with orange. I took some photos, hoping to capture it. Satisfied, I shut down the camera and started walking away. Then stopped.

In my focus on the picture-worthy sky, I had kind of missed the trees. Maybe I was just still asleep. But not when I noticed this. And all I had to do was look a little lower.

Dawn Trees

When Nokia Ruled the Mobile World

Nokia 1110

Microsoft is reportedly killing the Nokia brand, after having spent billions to buy the iconic company in hopes of boosting its stalled Windows Phone presence.

We are not surprised. Microsoft is the all-time tech accidental/incidental behemoth. Right place, right time, a few fortuitous decisions, strategic appropriations rather than innovations, and the next thing you know, we’re living and working in a mostly Microsoft world. Which is why Microsoft is constantly fixing what isn’t broken, and annoying and frustrating millions of users every second of every day.

The Tech Advisor article on the Nokia move led to one on the Top 10 Best Selling Mobile Phones in History.

Of those best selling mobile phones, 9 of the 10 are from Nokia (the Motorola RAZR V3 comes in at number 8). You may be used to what you think are big numbers, but at the top of the list—maybe forever—is the Nokia 1100:

The best-selling mobile phone ever is believed to be the Nokia 1100, which was released in 2003 and sold more than 250 million units. That’s more than any iPhone model. The success of the Nokia 1100 was not down to its features – it didn’t have a camera or even a colour display – but it was cheap, durable and did the jobs any mobile phone should.

Depending on your generation, you may not recognize the form factor of these Nokia phones. It was called a “candy bar” for pretty obvious reasons. If you were around for these, you also know that these were some of the most stylishly functional tech gadgets of all time: strikingly beautiful, naturally comfortable, reliably useful. Nokia did not sell over a billion and a half of the phones on the list because they were the only ones around; they sold them because they were the best and the coolest. (If that sounds like the iPhone story, it might a little, except that the Nokia phones were way cooler than any iPhone.)

Time does pass, and best is not biggest forever. Nokia’s big mistake was sticking to its proprietary operating system, Symbian, rather than adopting the then-nascent Android. If Nokia had gone Android early, it is possible we wouldn’t be talking about Samsung or Apple mobile the way we do. What later ended up happening was the marriage between a number 3 operating system, Windows, to a long past noble brand. It was a union that was never going to last.

In that box over there, though, are a couple of gorgeous Nokia phones that carried me into the mobile age and that I relinquished with great reluctance. A few years ago, when smartphones were still using the old, bigger SIM cards, I even switched SIMs and fired one of those Nokias up when a smartphone went temporarily down. Sure the Nokia seems rudimentary now. But I could still talk and listen, and still caress that Scandinavian beauty in my hand. Something Microsoft would never understand.