Bob Schwartz

Thanksgiving: Simple Gifts

Shaker Sewing Table

The Shaker dance song Simple Gifts (Joseph Brackett, 1848) is the ultimate Thanksgiving song. It is also the ultimate American song, provided we recognize that in America, the most religious and richest nation on earth, simplicity and humility are ideals worth aspiring to and striving for.

Ken Burns writes this about his documentary The Shakers:

They called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but because of their ecstatic dancing, the world called them Shakers. Though they were celibate, they are the most enduring religious experiment in American history. They believed in pacifism, natural health and hygiene, and for more than 200 years insisted that their followers should strive for simplicity and perfection in everything they did.

Shaker design, including furniture and baskets, may be familiar to you. So may the melody of Simple Gifts. It is frequently used in pop culture, and is most famous musically in Aaron Copland’s orchestral masterpiece, Appalachian Spring. And while the tune is often heard, the lyrics are not as frequently sung. Here is an appropriately unadorned version by Judy Collins.

Even if you can’t read music, you can look at the musical score and see how very simple this song is:

SimpleGifts

Here are the lyrics. Happy Thanksgiving.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Random Beads

Random Beads - Bob Schwartz

Every picture supposedly tells a story. Actually, every picture is a story.

Beading is a glorious craft. In the hands of a talented artist, the results can be beautiful and enlightening.

But like all art, it can be a messy business. In the case of beads, this can mean tiny items underfoot, and with bits of wire, pretty painful ones. Particularly where barefoot is the custom.

A quick post-beading cleanup led to quite a collection of such detritus, like shells on a beach. Tossed in a white bowl, they looked like something. And so the photo above.

If you are a fan of randomness—and we should all be—you will see in this totally spontaneous display any number of things. Gregory Bateson said, “I am going to build a church someday. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” Exactly.

Here is a beader in her natural habitat, the largest bead store in New York. It is filled with beads mostly from China which, as in most things, is able to provide whatever we want or need in seemingly infinite supply. So it is all together: geopolitics, economics, ancient tradition, minerals, pottery, glass, color, art, craft, and, of course, beauty. Note, however, that in this emporium, the beauty of the beader outshines all of the beads.

Bead Store

Interstellar: Not thinking is the best way to travel

Soul Nebula

The new movie Interstellar takes on big questions and concepts. About the nature of everything. It is more like an invitation than a text, more like an appetizer than a feast. How much of that can you pack into a movie anyway?

Whether or not you’ve seen it, or liked it, or tried to understand it, here is something to consider.

What available paths are there to addressing these issues?

Being one of the travelers who journeys to the far reaches of time, space, and the other numberless dimensions.

Being a scientist who theorizes about that.

Being a director who makes a movie about that.

Being a viewer who watches a movie about that.

Being someone who thinks about that.

Being someone who stops thinking about that and journeys to those far reaches.

The list isn’t comprehensive, none of these is exclusive of the others, none of these may be best. But if you did see Interstellar, or have seen the dozens of movies that address this, or read any of the thousands of texts that address this, or are just curious, do investigate that last possibility. You may discover that the place beyond thinking looks like all the wonders of Interstellar. With fewer movie stars and special effects. But much more real.

The President’s Speech: Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Enforcement

CRS - Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration

The following will not necessarily make you smarter than the hundreds—thousands?—of talking heads you will hear opining and pontificating about the President’s speech tonight on immigration. But it just might.

For those who haven’t followed this political drama, the President has long awaited Congressional action on immigration reform, and in the absence of that, has decided to take executive action. Reports are that this will include deferring legal proceedings against a large number of undocumented immigrants. Charges are already flying from political opponents, claiming that the President is exceeding his authority, with impeachment even being discussed.

It appears that the basis for this executive action may be prosecutorial discretion. As you may know (and as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have highlighted), prosecutors have broad, virtually unlimited and unreviewable discretion to decide who to prosecute and not prosecute. There are principles and theories about how this discretion might be less than absolute, but as a matter of practice, it is quite broad.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is the very valuable but little-known non-partisan government service that answers questions that Congress has about any issue that Congress is interested in. You name the topic or issue, CRS has probably studied it.

Last December, CRS answered a question that is at the heart of the President’s approach to the immigration crisis: What, if any, are the limits on prosecutorial discretion in immigration?

The report, Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Enforcement: Legal Issues is a must-read. It is true that legal opinions on many issues differ (see the Supreme Court), but CRS is supposedly the starting point for any questions that Congress has. Congress members may have disagreements with the reports, but few question the impartiality or skill of CRS researchers.

CRS concludes:

Regardless of whether it is characterized as “prosecutorial discretion” or “enforcement discretion,” immigration officers are generally seen as having wide latitude in determining when, how, and even whether to pursue apparent violations of the INA [Immigration and Nationality Act]. This latitude is similar to that possessed by prosecutors in the criminal law enforcement context and enforcement officials in other federal agencies. Whether and how to constrain this discretion has been a recurring issue for some Members of Congress, particularly in light of the June 2011 DHS [Department of Homeland Security] memorandum on prosecutorial discretion and the more recent DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] initiative. While some Members have expressed support for the DACA initiative, or called for expanded use of prosecutorial discretion by immigration authorities in other contexts, others have sought to prohibit DHS from granting deferred action or extended voluntary departure to removable aliens except in narrow circumstances, or to “nullify” particular policies regarding prosecutorial discretion that have been articulated by the Obama Administration….

In addition, the degree of intrusion into executive enforcement decisions may also impact a court’s review of any congressional response. For example, legal precedent suggests that Congress probably cannot directly limit the President’s exercise of discretion by requiring that the executive branch initiate enforcement actions against particular individuals. On the other hand, Congress would appear to have considerable latitude in establishing statutory guidelines for immigration officials to follow in the exercise of their enforcement powers, including by “indicat[ing] with precision the measures available to enforce the” INA, or by prohibiting DHS from considering certain factors in setting enforcement priorities.

However, the existing judicial presumption that “an agency’s decision not to take enforcement action [is] immune from judicial review,” and the deference potentially accorded to an agency’s interpretation of its governing statute, suggests that such statutory guidelines would likely need to be clear, express, and specific. The use of “shall” in a provision of the INA may not, in itself, suffice for a statute to be construed as having provided enforceable guidelines for immigration officials to follow in exercising prosecutorial discretion. Absent a substantive legislative response, Congress may still be able to influence the implementation of DACA or other discretion-based policies by the immigration authorities, including by engaging in stringent oversight over the DHS program or by exercising its “power of the purse” to prohibit DHS and its components from implementing particular policies related to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion that Congress does not support.

Translation: Congress cannot force the executive branch to enforce particular immigration provisions, which means that an executive policy to defer enforcement is not subject to Congressional control. (This is as good a point as any to mention that President Obama has already overseen a record number of immigrant deportations and he is not “soft” on undocumented immigration). However, in the view of CRS, Congress has “considerable latitude in establishing statutory guidelines for immigration officials to follow in the exercise of their enforcement powers.” That is, Congress could exercise its will by simply passing laws on this significant issue. Or on any significant issue that it claims to be vexed about. But it won’t. So can you blame the elected leader of the American people for being frustrated, and choosing to do what he can to step in where the brave and bold members of Congress are—how to say this politely—too fainthearted to go?

Return to the Four Freedoms

Four Freedoms

As we approach the holiday season, we might think about the big metaphorical American family gathering around the big metaphorical American table. One thing you notice, as with a lot of families and tables, is that there’s going to be a few disagreements, some pretty heated.

But at some point, in keeping with the spirit of the season, the family will be looking for common ground, those shared ideals that unite us. Unfortunately, we seem to be losing sight of those ideals because, to be honest, it isn’t always clear what they are.

In early 1941, while war was already raging in Europe, but almost a year before Pearl Harbor, FDR gave one of the most famous speeches of the era and of American history. It was the 1941 State of the Union address, but it will always be known as the Four Freedoms speech. To bolster American support for our almost inevitable involvement in the war, he enunciated the Four Freedoms we would be fighting for: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

Art turned out to play an important role in keeping these ideals front and center, especially as the prospect of American sacrifice became a reality. The most famous example may be a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell (above), who was then and maybe still the greatest American illustrator. The Library of Congress explains:

Taken from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech to Congress, the “Four Freedoms” –Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear–became a rallying point for the United States during WWII. Artist Norman Rockwell created four vignettes to illustrate the concepts. Rockwell intended to donate the paintings to the War Department, but after receiving no response, the painter offered them to the Saturday Evening Post, where they were first published on February 20, 1943. Popular reaction was overwhelming, and more than 25,000 readers requested full-color reproductions suitable for framing.

Some will say that these Four Freedoms are today “controversial” because we don’t seem to be able as a nation—as an American family—to agree on the strategies to maintain and attain those ideals. Those disagreements are undeniable, as are the related invective, disparagement, and even hatefulness that goes with them. But those disagreements can’t make us give up. On the contrary, they should send us back to the words of FDR, getting past the ideologies and labels, and really look within and at the family of Americans.

Do you really believe that these ideals are exclusive to you, and not shared by others of good will? Are your principles and affiliations so very important that you would sacrifice those ideals to be “right?” Or can we come to the table, dig deeper, and not leave until we have given up a little of our own self-importance and focused instead on getting a little closer to the country and world envisioned in the shared Four Freedoms? And maybe just a little closer to each other?

Warriors Day

Battle of the Somme - 1916

Today is Warriors Day. We call it Veterans Day, which intentionally or inadvertently distances it from a harsher reality. It began in 1919 to commemorate the Armistice that ended World War I, the War to End All Wars.

Who is a warrior?

In broad terms, all of us are warriors of some sort, battling for causes and ideals ranging from the personal to the cosmic, and everything in between. We fight for ourselves, our families, our nation, our ideologies, our traditions.

But the warriors of Warriors Day are something very specific. These are the people we delegate to fight for us, for causes that we deem significant enough to sacrifice their safety, their bodies, their lives. Under threat, current or prospective, real or perceived, we sacrifice them and peace so that we might ultimately have peace.

What should we do?

After the fact of war, we should keep whatever promises we make to warriors—without adjustment, equivocation, or renegotiation. World War I provided one of the most egregious instances of this. World War I veterans were not to receive full payment of their service bonus until 1945. But the Depression left many of them destitute. Thousands of them marched on Washington in 1932, seeking an advance of this payment. The letter of the law dictated waiting; the spirit of their sacrifice and hardship demanded payment. The Bonus Marchers were violently dispersed, though in 1936 Congress met the demands—over FDR’s veto.

Before the fact of war, we should consider everything involved. Really consider, not just blow hard self-righteously and politically. This is easier for those who have actually been warriors, though that number is decreasing as a proportion of our population, especially among our politicians and policy makers. Those veterans may or may not be able to sort through and articulate all the issues of our most complex geopolitics ever, but they can do something home front folks can’t—relive the experience of being a warrior.

Demand truth. Truth is said to be the first casualty of war, including pre-war and post-war. Right now, for example, Obama’s talk about “advisers only” in Iraq is making some veterans, particularly those of Vietnam, shake their heads. Col. Jack Jacobs, an NBC commentator, observed this morning that his experience as an “adviser” in Vietnam inevitably involved combat.

What about peace?

Peace, the absence of conflict at all levels, may not be a possibility. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be our default position, the one from which all other circumstances are an aberration. For whatever reasons, conflict seems to be the default position for some, including those in positions of power and influence. There are things worth fighting for, but before moving forward, we need to be much surer of what those things are, how we are going about the fight, and how honest we can be. Most of all, if it is someone else doing the fighting at our command, we must realize that we are totally answerable for the consequences, as uncomfortable and costly as that might turn out to be.

Notes on Interstellar

Interstellar

1

Christopher Nolan’s movie Interstellar is more interesting than it is imperfect. See it if you like space movies, sci-fi movies, intellectually curious movies, spectacular movies, etc.

It is filled with wonders. It is like the car trunk stuffed with luggage for a vacation, so much colorful and significant luggage creatively crammed in that when you open it on arrival you say: Wow, I wonder how we ever got all that stuff in there?

No spoilers here, but a couple of things.

Look for all the tiny (and not so tiny) echoes of space and sci-fi movies past. Star Wars, Close Encounters, etc., but most of all 2001. Why not? Right now, “they” are probably having a good 5th dimensional laugh watching Stanley Kubrick’s proto-human apes tossing that bone.

Interstellar has the most subtly cool robots ever. TARS doesn’t sing like HAL, but he has moves like Jagger and is great with the snappy patter.

2

The movie is much about cosmology—the origin and nature of existence. Cosmology is the domain of all kinds of people, including religionists and philosophers. But in greater part, we have handed over many of those considerations, as in this movie, to theoretical physicists—Einstein, Hawking, etc. I am a big fan of cosmology.

It is not a spoiler to mention that plenty of people, including some in this movie, believe that the Apollo 11 moon landing was faked. Which raises this way-out-there question: What if the moon landing was real but all the cosmological theoretical physics is faked? Going back before Einstein, theoretical physics spends much of its time (as we understand it) looking for physical proof of those theories. What if all the theory is so utterly astounding and enlightening that when the evidence failed to support it, all the scientists engaged in the study conspired to make it seem as if those theories are supported?

Faking the moon landing mission has never been put entirely to rest because, in fact, only three people experienced it first-hand. Everyone else was second-hand or more distanced from the actuality. But the basic elements of it are well within our understanding: astronauts, rocket, spaceship, lunar lander, moon, television pictures. The cosmological speculation and supporting discoveries are so far beyond anything that most of us can fully—or slightly—grasp that we could easily be fooled into taking it for “reality.”

By the way, for those wondering about the earnestness of all that, be assured that I am just playing. Or am I?

3

We don’t have to be space pilots to experience cosmology, or be theoretical physicists or movie directors to think about it. Cosmology is ordinary. Interstellar and other movies and thousands of works of art and literature point to this. Everybody is a cosmologist, like it or not.

Cosmology is an excellent topic that does not necessarily require specialized knowledge. You may not know a worm hole from a black hole. But you already know a ton about time, space, being, and gravity. You just have to know how to know and that you know.

This is from an essay almost 800 years old. No more or less spectacular than Interstellar, it is no more or less a non-theoretical description:

Do not think that time merely flies away. Do not see flying away as the only function of time. If time merely flies away, you would be separated from time. The reason you do not clearly understand the time being is that you think of time only as passing.

In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being….

You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. Although understanding itself is time, understanding does not depend on its own arrival.

People only see time’s coming and going, and do not thoroughly understand that the time being abides in each moment. Then, when can they penetrate the barrier? Even if people recognized the time being in each moment, who could give expression to this recognition? Even if they could give expression to this recognition for a long time, who could stop looking for the realization of the original face? According to an ordinary person’s view of the time being, even enlightenment and nirvana as the time being would be merely aspects of coming and going….

Mountains are time. Oceans are time. If they were not time, there would be no mountains or oceans. Do not think that mountains and oceans here and now are not time. If time is annihilated, mountains and oceans are annihilated. As time is not annihilated, mountains and oceans are not annihilated.

Dogen
The Time Being (1240)
Treasury of the True Dharma Eye

Still Waiting for 21st Century American Politics

Pelosi McConnell Reid Boehner

We are still waiting for the emergence of 21st century politics in America.

The first part of this may seem simplistic and overgeneralized. The second part may seem silly. But this is about politics, so what can you expect?

1

Many Republicans seem to be stuck at some point in the 19th century—not just Robber Barons and the Gilded Age, but certainly that. Many Democrats seem to be stuck with some version of 20th century progressivism—not a bad thing, by any means, but constructed in a different world under different circumstances.

2

Forget the bourbon and beer political summits. The President, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, John Boehner, and Nancy Pelosi should take advantage of D.C.’s new legalized marijuana and share the peace pipe. The scripts would fall away, they would be channeling some different higher power. (Question: Which of these, besides Obama, has actually smoked pot before? Answer: All of them, even if it was just a puff, even if it was just a dare, even if they didn’t inhale.)

Music and food might be issues. Not knowing their individual tastes, and if the point is to get to a better and more creative, communal, and enlightening space, Bob Marley could do the trick. Shoulders swaying, spirits lifting, to the heavenly prayer of One Love.

Food? Whatever’s in the fridge.

3

As I said, simplistic, overgeneralized, and silly. But if politics keeps trying to recreate some ideal of a bygone era, country, or world, two centuries ago, one century ago, fifty years ago, it won’t work. Yes, of course there are timeless values that deserve our allegiance. But these are always set in temporal realities. Being current means more than just being “relevant” or using the latest technologies to drive your message home or appealing to ascendant populations. It means that however much you love the way it was, just inhale, exhale, and breathe the air of 2014, 2016, and beyond. Because, politicians, it’s not your parents’ air—it’s not even yours.

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