Bob Schwartz

Month: October, 2016

Star Trek Koan


Captain Kirk faced a crisis on the Enterprise. He summoned his ship’s doctor and his ship’s engineer. Bones says, “Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor, not an engineer.” Scotty says, “I’m an engineer, Captain, not a doctor.” Who is right?

Treasure Rooms


Being Jewish, or Buddhist, or Christian, or Muslim, or part of any tradition, is not primarily an identity, though it is used that way so that community can be established and maintained.

It is a key to a treasure room, different rooms for different traditions. In that room are items whose true value is not inherent or obvious, despite others putting price tags on these items. These, they say, are the most valuable, while these others are less important or completely unimportant.

If you are invited into the treasure room, or invite yourself in, you can look at the price tags, but should also explore and discover for yourself. Keep your eyes and mind open.  Just calling something treasure does not make it so. And what is dismissed or little noticed may be the greatest treasure of all. You are not there just to find treasure, though there is plenty of it. You are there to learn about treasure and about yourself.

For ER, at a special moment on his treasure hunt.

The Political Opera Isn’t Over Until the Fat Cats Sing

Fat Cat Singing

If you were wondering whether the Trump soap opera/nightmare would end sometime before the actual vote, it is now official.

Cut Ties to Donald Trump, Big Donors Urge R.N.C. reports the New York Times:

Several of the Republican Party’s most generous donors called on the Republican National Committee on Thursday to disavow Donald J. Trump, saying that allegations by multiple women that Mr. Trump had groped or made inappropriate sexual advances toward them threatened to inflict lasting damage on the party’s image.

To an elite group of Republican contributors who have donated millions of dollars to the party’s candidates and committees in recent years, the cascade of revelations related to Mr. Trump’s sexual conduct is grounds for the committee to cut ties with the party’s beleaguered standard-bearer, finally and fully….

Bruce Kovner, a New York investor and philanthropist who with his wife has given $2.7 million to Republicans over the same period [since the 2012 election], was just as blunt. “He is a dangerous demagogue completely unsuited to the responsibilities of a United States president,” Mr. Kovner wrote in an email, referring to Mr. Trump.

It is indeed unfortunate that money speaks so much louder and more forcefully than the voice of ordinary people in current, post-Citizens United America. But if at this moment, this helps us to move on, even just a little, from this bizarre political hell we seem to be stuck in, I’ll take it. When the fat cats sing, the parties listen. And this particular song should be music to our ears.

No Preferences

Xinxin Ming

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

Thus begins one of the most famous Zen texts, Verses on the Faith-Mind  (Xinxin Ming), attributed to Jianzhi Sengcan (d. 606), the Third Ancestor of Zen.

This is one of the most common themes for way seekers. And as difficult as it is ubiquitous.

Smart or less smart, knowledgeable or less knowledgeable, all of us have preferences and opinions about this and that. We make distinctions. Good and bad. Better and best. All of us. All the time. Some people more than others.

There can be practical reasons. We want to know what to embrace or avoid.  And if we think we know that, we want to tell others. On the less practical side, we may want to demonstrate just how discerning we are. How smart we are. That happens.

The point is to be watchful of our tendencies to fill our lives and time with those preferences and distinctions. They will, without our noticing, take us over.

Zen goes one step further. The reason to give up preferences is not primarily to improve something about ourselves and our relationships with others, though that may be an effect. More than that, those preferences and distinctions don’t exist. At all. We just impose them on whatever is. This idea seems not just unlikely from our experience, but impossible.

Don’t believe Zen? Believe Jesus, who made the same point. “Do not judge and you will not be judged” is not just about being fair and self aware and not being hypocritical. It is about the hollowness of judgments themselves. Of course we will make judgments, but clinging to them and making them the centerpiece of our time and life is not the way.

Infinitely large and infinitely small;
no difference, for definitions have vanished
and no boundaries are seen.
So too with Being and non-Being.
Waste no time in doubts and arguments
that have nothing to do with this.

One thing, all things;
move among and intermingle,
without distinction.
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about nonperfection.
To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.

The Way is beyond language,
for in it there is
no yesterday
no tomorrow
no today.

From Hsin-Hsin Ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind, translated by Richard B. Clarke


Donald Trump Jr.: The Only Time Normal People Pretend to Talk and Act Decently Is When They Are Running for President. Otherwise…

I can’t resist unpacking this statement from Donald Trump Jr., talking about his father’s infamous Access Hollywood comments:

“I’ve had conversations like that with plenty of people where people use language off color. They’re talking, two guys, amongst themselves. I’ve seen it time and time again. I think it makes him a human. I think it makes him a normal person, not a political robot. He hasn’t spent his whole life waiting for this moment to run for the presidency.”

Off color: This is sort of a quaint description, usually meaning foul or coarse language. It is true that Trump used coarse language in his otherwise highbrow conversation with Billy Bush. But that is hardly the issue.

A normal person: Normal is a moving target, of course, both in terms of culture and of time, i.e., the old normal v. the new normal. To quote a favorite line from Arcade Fire’s Normal Person, “If that’s what’s normal now, I don’t want to know.”

He hasn’t spent his whole life waiting for this moment to run for the presidency: This is the best one. It implies that everybody—or at least “two guys”— always talks this way, unless they are going to run for President, in which case they keep it all behind closed doors. Junior doesn’t explain how a guy and a girl might talk, or how two girls might talk, if they are running for office. Presumably, the same rules apply.

Political Insanity Defense

People have watched enough criminal trials on TV to know about the insanity defense—or actually defenses, since it differs state to state:


  • What are the legal standards for insanity?

Each state, and the District of Columbia, has its own statute setting out the standard for determining whether a defendant was legally insane, and therefore not responsible, at the time his crime was committed. In general, the standards fall into two categories.

About half of the states follow the “M’Naughten” rule, based on the 1843 British case of Daniel M’Naughten, a deranged woodcutter who attempted to assassinate the prime minister. He was acquitted, and the resulting standard is still used in 26 states in the U.S.: A defendant may be found not guilty by reason of insanity if “at the time of committing the act, he was laboring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.” (emphasis added) This test is also commonly referred to as the “right/wrong” test.

Twenty-two jurisdictions use some variation of the Model Standard set out by the American Law Institute (A.L.I.) in 1962. Under the A.L.I. rule, a defendant is not held criminally responsible “if at the time of his conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law.” (emphasis added) The A.L.I. rule is generally considered to be less restrictive than the M’Naughten rule.

Some states that use the M’Naughten rule have modified it to include a provision for a defendant suffering under “an irresistible impulse” which prevents him from being able to stop himself from committing an act that he knows is wrong.

Three states — Montana, Idaho, and Utah — do not allow the insanity defense at all.

PBS Frontline: A Crime of Insanity

What if—and I know this is far-fetched and fantastical—some political candidate was suffering from what some of the states call “mental disease or defect”? Could that candidate claim no responsibility for behavior on or off the campaign trail? No responsibility for behavior in office, if by some chance elected?

Such a candidate might claim—and again, far-fetched and fantastical—that ISIS will be taking over the United States if he is not elected. That Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is part of a “secret deal” and a vast conspiracy to defeat him. That he, the candidate, is a savior, and that he and he alone in all the world is capable of saving the nation.

This is fertile territory for legal, psychological and political scholars, as far-fetched and fantastical as it may be.

Yom Kippur Lesser Hits

I see that a few of my older posts about the Days of Awe/High Holy Days are being read now. This is a gratifying, considering that when I read them myself, I am not all that happy with them (the writer’s curse).

It gave me the idea that maybe instead of writing something new about this Yom Kippur, which begins this evening, I would instead include links to some of the past posts.

For those who are Jewish and fasting, may you have an easy fast. For those who are not Jewish or not fasting, no worries. The opportunity to contemplate our lives is open every day to everyone, no matter who you are, no matter what you eat, or don’t.

Yom Kippur and Job

“Whether this is a day of reflection and fasting, reciting centuries-old prayers, or an ordinary day of work or study, managing others or being managed; whether you are Job beset by unexplained misfortune, or Job’s wife, ready to kill him if he doesn’t kill himself, or Job’s friends so quick with advice; whether you are being punished by God, Satan, or whatever other forces you believe are working against you; whether you are the smartest person in the room or not; this is what we can do, even if there is seemingly no comfort in it: Be awed. Be humble.”

Yom Kippur: A Serious Day for a Serious Man

“The movie closes with a note taken straight from the Book of Job. A tornado approaches. Will it be the voice of God out of the whirlwind? Or will it just be one more inexplicable disaster, one more serious touch of uncertainty? Who knows? Yom Kippur and every day, listen to Rabbi Marshak: Be a good girl or boy.”

Yom Kippur: Beyond the Self

“The tradition says that the Book of Life is open during the Ten Days of Awe. When the holy days end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the shofar sounds, the book closes and our lives will have been written for the next year. But the book is always open.”

Jonah, Yom Kippur, Iran and Irony

“Last week, Iranian psychotherapist Mohsen Amir-Aslani was hanged for, among other things, insulting the prophet Jonah.”

Why I Read the Qur’an This Yom Kippur

“You may believe in many respects besides religious—historical, social, cultural—that the Bible is one of the most important books in the world. You may also have to admit that in its impact, the Qur’an is its equal.”

No Mail No News

Alice - Drink Me

My day begins with no mail and no news.

How hard is that? Well, the devices surrounding me are begging me. Not unlike the bottle in Wonderland that implored Alice “Drink me,” these insist “Read me, watch me.”

This isn’t entirely new. Before digital (BD) the phone could ring first thing in the morning. You could wake up to TV news, which many still do.

But now, nothing is unknowable at any time, about the world in general or about your life in particular. All of it available the moment you wake.

If a flash flood is heading to my door, or a loved one needs me right now, of course I want to know it. But most things can wait a little while, while the big little world of first light finds its shape and way. If someone famous is dead, they will still be dead. If some politician has said something stupid, or improbably brilliant, there will be time for that. If a war is getting worse or better, I will bemoan the conflict or celebrate the prospect of peace. Just a tiny bit later.

Right now, the raw and unpolished jewel of the day begins.

HBKK. That’s the news that matters.

Rickroll Zazen

Rickroll Zazen

To understand this, you need to know a little about two things: Zen and the 1980s pop star Rick Astley.

The centerpiece of Zen is zazen, sitting meditation, and the center of that is shikantaza, just sitting. Sitting without mantra or visualization or other objective technique. Just sitting and breathing. If thoughts arise, let them go.

In his great but now out of print Approach to Zen (incorporated into his later, greater and available Opening the Hand of Thought, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi included a very primitive but excellent line drawing to represent how zazen works.  After reading countless explanations, this drawing still says it as well as any other description:

Uchiyama Zazen

You sit. Along the way you think about a. Then you return to just sitting (Z). You think about b. Then you return to just sitting (Z). You think about c, apparently a lovely woman or whatever. Then you return to just sitting (Z). It is both simple and hard.

Rickrolling is a cultural phenomenon surrounding pop star Rick Astley. In 1987, he had a huge hit with the track Never Gonna Give You Up. It was the heyday of MTV, so naturally there was a video.

Sometime around 2007, something happened with the video for Never Gonna Give You Up. It began showing up as a surprise at completely unlikely and inappropriate moments. You would click on something, but instead it would be Rick. Rickrolling continues to this day.

Because of this, Rick Astley remains one of the most recognized 1980s pop music icons, even for people who have no idea who he was. He just released his first album in years. And it was reading about him and that new album that got me started.

You cannot read about Rickrolling, let alone hear the track or view the video, without getting Never Gonna Give You Up stuck in your head. Which is not convenient if the very next thing you are doing is zazen. As a regular practitioner with a complex life, I’ve had to put some very serious things out of mind when I sit. But Rick Astley, for a few minutes, was as stubborn and sticky as it gets.

Above, borrowing from Uchiyama Roshi’s drawing, you will see what Rickroll zazen looks like.

Note: For those who don’t know the video (it has about 250 million views on YouTube) here it is. And no, you are not being Rickrolled.

The Book of Life (Days of Awe)

The Book of Life (Days of Awe)

Who writes
Who reads
The sentences
In careful paragraphs and chapters
That follow ancient codes?
Or the disjointed scrawl,
Random and indecipherable,
No system at all?
The contest is closing in days.
Who judges the book,
By what rules?
How will we know
If we win or lose?
Another new year growing old,
Another life on the shelf.