Bob Schwartz

Month: August, 2017

The Furniture of Religion

When I look at the religions I practice or have a studied interest in—Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity among them—I see empty houses and furniture.

Some religions seem to begin with emptying the previously stuffed house, or at least minimizing the furniture. Buddhism and Christianity look like this, at least in the beginning. But the nature of religious evolution is to buy, borrow or build furnishings to fill the rooms, because it seems an improvement and because it is what people seem to like in their homes. And so, thousands of years later, you find plenty of variety in the Buddhist and Christian neighborhoods—some very grand constructions spiritually, intellectually, and physically, that seem a long way from the original simple houses.

Judaism, which like Hinduism harks back to a more ancient world where more is more, begins overstuffed (or in the Yiddish expression, ongeshtopt, meaning overstuffed). There have been continuing movements to strip down the Jewish furniture to basics and barer floors and walls, the most powerful of which has been the Hasidic stream, flowing from the Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century. (But in the spirit of exponential furnishing, the Hasidic movement became more and more overstuffed over the next few hundred years, leaving the Besht’s house barely recognizable.)

Regular readers know my appreciation for religion and my practice of Zen, which for me remains the best (but not only) way to clear out the furniture, or at least see through it to the basic house, or even to see through the house itself to where it sits in the universe. Once there, you can bring in the furniture you really need, whatever the period or the style.

 

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Buddhist Anarchism

Celebrated poet Gary Snyder has been a master swimmer in the cultural and spiritual currents of our times. His biography from the Poetry Foundation notes:

Gary Snyder began his career in the 1950s as a noted member of the “Beat Generation,” though he has since explored a wide range of social and spiritual matters in both poetry and prose. Snyder’s work blends physical reality and precise observations of nature with inner insight received primarily through the practice of Zen Buddhism. While Snyder has gained attention as a spokesman for the preservation of the natural world and its earth-conscious cultures, he is not simply a “back-to-nature” poet with a facile message….

Snyder’s emphasis on metaphysics and his celebration of the natural order remove his work from the general tenor of Beat writing—and in fact Snyder is also identified as a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance along with Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser. Snyder has looked to the Orient and to the beliefs of American Indians for positive responses to the world, and he has tempered his studies with stints of hard physical labor as a logger and trail builder. Altieri believed that Snyder’s “articulation of a possible religious faith” independent of Western culture has greatly enhanced his popularity. In his study of the poet, Bob Steuding described how Snyder’s accessible style, drawn from the examples of Japanese haiku and Chinese verse, “has created a new kind of poetry that is direct, concrete, non-Romantic, and ecological. . . . Snyder’s work will be remembered in its own right as the example of a new direction taken in American literature.” Nation contributor Richard Tillinghast wrote: “In Snyder the stuff of the world ‘content’—has always shone with a wonderful sense of earthiness and health. He has always had things to tell us, experiences to relate, a set of values to expound. . . . He has influenced a generation.”

In 1961, Snyder published an essay entitled Buddhist Anarchism. Anarchism is a slippery term, though a call to turn things upside down, or an observation of our heading there, probably qualifies. The Buddhist part is definite here. Yes, it is radical, and pragmatic history may seem to demonstrate that the vision is idealistic, impractical and impossible. Even quaint in the face of the 21st century real world and real life. But without the idealistic, impractical and impossible, where is the fun and the future?

Buddhist Anarchism

Buddhism holds that the universe and all creatures in it are intrinsically in a state of complete wisdom, love and compassion; acting in natural response and mutual interdependence. The personal realization of this from-the-beginning state cannot be had for and by one-“self” — because it is not fully realized unless one has given the self up; and away.

In the Buddhist view, that which obstructs the effortless manifestation of this is Ignorance, which projects into fear and needless craving. Historically, Buddhist philosophers have failed to analyze out the degree to which ignorance and suffering are caused or encouraged by social factors, considering fear-and-desire to be given facts of the human condition. Consequently the major concern of Buddhist philosophy is epistemology and “psychology” with no attention paid to historical or sociological problems. Although Mahayana Buddhism has a grand vision of universal salvation, the actual achievement of Buddhism has been the development of practical systems of meditation toward the end of liberating a few dedicated individuals from psychological hangups and cultural conditionings. Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.

No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam. The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies — Communist included — into vicious distorters of man’s true potential. They create populations of “preta” — hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them.

There is nothing in human nature or the requirements of human social organization which intrinsically requires that a culture be contradictory, repressive and productive of violent and frustrated personalities. Recent findings in anthropology and psychology make this more and more evident. One can prove it for himself by taking a good look at his own nature through meditation. Once a person has this much faith and insight, he must be led to a deep concern with the need for radical social change through a variety of hopefully non-violent means.

The joyous and voluntary poverty of Buddhism becomes a positive force. The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications. The practice of meditation, for which one needs only “the ground beneath one’s feet,” wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by the mass media and supermarket universities. The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural loving desires destroys ideologies which blind, maim and repress — and points the way to a kind of community which would amaze “moralists” and transform armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers.

Avatamsaka (Kegon) Buddhist philosophy sees the world as a vast interrelated network in which all objects and creatures are necessary and illuminated. From one standpoint, governments, wars, or all that we consider “evil” are uncompromisingly contained in this totalistic realm. The hawk, the swoop and the hare are one. From the “human” standpoint we cannot live in those terms unless all beings see with the same enlightened eye. The Bodhisattva lives by the sufferer’s standard, and he must be effective in aiding those who suffer.

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.”

This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world. It means using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck. It means affirming the widest possible spectrum of non-harmful individual behavior — defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp, eat peyote, be polygynous, polyandrous or homosexual. Worlds of behavior and custom long banned by the Judaeo-Capitalist-Christian-Marxist West. It means respecting intelligence and learning, but not as greed or means to personal power. Working on one’s own responsibility, but willing to work with a group. “Forming the new society within the shell of the old” — the IWW slogan of fifty years ago.

The traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or ever was in any other culture can be reconstructed from the unconscious, through meditation. In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past. If we are lucky we may eventually arrive at a totally integrated world culture with matrilineal descent, free-form marriage, natural-credit communist economy, less industry, far less population and lots more national parks.

GARY SNYDER
1961

The Currently Uncoolest Person in America: Louise Linton (Mrs. Steve Mnuchin)

If you don’t follow the horror film franchise that is the Trump administration (and why should you?), this morning’s story is about Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin:

New York Times:

Mnuchin’s Wife Mocks Oregon Woman Over Lifestyle and Wealth

By MAGGIE HABERMAN and MIKAYLA BOUCHARD
AUG. 22, 2017

WASHINGTON — The wife of the Treasury secretary on Monday night took a page from President Trump’s social media playbook for punching down.

Louise Linton, the labels-loving wife of Steven Mnuchin, replied condescendingly to an Instagram poster about her lifestyle and belittled the woman, Jenni Miller, a mother of three from Portland, Ore., for having less money than she does.

The brouhaha began when Ms. Linton posted a photograph of herself disembarking a military jet emblazoned with official government markings. She had joined her husband on a quick trip to Kentucky with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

“Great #daytrip to #Kentucky!” Ms. Linton, 36, wrote under the photograph. She then added hashtags for various pieces of her expensive wardrobe, listing #rolandmouret, #hermesscarf, #tomford and #valentino.

Ms. Miller, 45, wrote under the photograph, “Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable.”

Instead of ignoring Ms. Miller, Ms. Linton — whose account had been public — replied with snark. (Ms. Linton changed her Instagram account to a private setting soon after the photograph was posted.)

“Aw!!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable!” she wrote. “Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol. Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country?”

Ms. Linton went on: “I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day ‘trip’ than you did. Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours.” After that, she included emojis of a curled bicep and a face blowing a kiss.

“You’re adorably out of touch,” she said, later adding, “your life looks cute” before concluding, “Go chill out and watch the new game of thrones. It’s fab!”

Mr. Mnuchin is a wealthy businessman and a former executive at Goldman Sachs who worked on deals with Mr. Trump before Mr. Trump became president. Ms. Linton is an actress who posed with the diamonds she wore at their June wedding for a Town and Country magazine spread.

Here’s Ms. Linton/Mrs. Mnuchin talking about all the jewels she wore at their June wedding:

The engagement ring: “We were at Art Basel in Miami a few years ago and we walked past a jewelry store. We stopped to admire the shape of an oval engagement ring in the window. It’s quite an old-fashioned shape but I love it. Three years later he proposed to me with an oval ring just like the one we saw in the window.”

On her pearl drop earrings: “I love how easy pearls are to wear with anything and everything. Pearls are elegant and demure. They remind me of the femininity and grace of the ’40s and ’50s. They make me think of Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and The Birds. Those women were so chic.”

On her diamond necklace: “The stones are brilliant cut which makes them sparkle at night. It fills me with awe to consider that before they were found, these diamonds had been sitting undisturbed beneath us for hundreds of millions of years over 100 kilometers deep in the earth’s mantle.”

On this pair of earrings, converted to a ring: “A friend gave me these pave earrings for my law school graduation. When I put them on I felt very serious. I got creative and took them to a local jeweler to turn them into a cocktail ring. He just cut off the posts and soldered them onto a band! They sit diagonal to each other on your finger which is unexpected and kind of cool. It’s great to be able to make something new you love out of something old.”

(Note: With all due respect, it appears she attended an unaccredited law school in L.A., which may explain why it took earrings to make her feel “very serious.”)

On her cluster earrings: “These date back to the 1920s. They’re starburst and reminiscent of Old Hollywood glamour. I love to think about who wore them over the generations… I can imagine them on Eva Marie Saint, or Ava Gardner, or Lauren Bacall. Where did they go from there? What did they signify to the women who wore them before me? Who will own them in the future? You never really own a diamond. You just get to keep it for a while before it begins a new journey with someone else.”

On her diamond eternity band: “I love the emotional symbolism of the eternity band as a wedding band. It’s like wearing the infinity sign on your finger and represents the cyclical and enduring aspect of love.”

On her asscher cut stud earrings: “These small Asscher cut studs were a Valentine’s gift a few years ago. We took our dogs to a little ranch hotel in California for the weekend. The earrings always remind me of that trip.”

On her diamond necklace: “This necklace looks like a large diamond pendant but if you look closely it’s made of lots of little stones in differing shapes. My character in Serial Daters Anonymous [2018] wears it through most of the film!”

On her pearl earrings: “I bought these freshwater pearls from the gift shop at the Kennedy Center when I went to see the ballet curated by dancer Misty Copeland in April. I arrived early and was browsing the gift shop where a local artisan was selling her handmade jewelry. They’re so natural, simple and pretty.”

On her “ten to ten” engraved necklace: “As a child, my mother and I always used to look at the clock at ten to 10. We’d find one another and say, ‘It’s ten to ten!’ and it became our little thing. She died when I was 14, but I always remembered that tradition. One of my friends gave me this silver necklace engraved with this as a simple reminder of my mom. I feel very close to her when I wear it.”

The Trump administration specializes in remarkably uncool people, starting with Trump himself. It just happened that my music this morning veered towards one of the coolest people, with a track that seems perfectly appropriate.

Here’s Sia with Cheap Thrills:

Come on, come on, turn the radio on
It’s Friday night and I won’t be long
Gotta do my hair, I put my make up on
It’s Friday night and I won’t be long
Til I hit the dance floor
Hit the dance floor
I got all I need
No I ain’t got cash
I ain’t got cash
But I got you baby
Baby I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight
(I love cheap thrills)
Baby I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight
(I love cheap thrills)
But I don’t need no money
As long as I can feel the beat
I don’t need no money
As long as I keep dancing

Everything you need to know—literally everything—in one not bright moment: “Trump celebrates solar eclipse by looking up without special viewing glasses.”

Washington Post:

Like many Americans across the country Monday, President Trump gazed at the first solar eclipse in a century to cross the continental United States, coast to coast.

Emerging with first lady Melania and son Barron on the Blue Room Balcony of the White House shortly before the eclipse reached its apex, Trump waved at the crowd and responded to a reporter’s question — “How’s the view?” — with a thumbs up, according to the White House pool.

Then he tilted his head upward and pointed up, prompting a White House aide standing beneath the balcony to shout “don’t look,” according to the White House press pool.

Safely Listening to the Eclipse

 

Safely Listening to the Eclipse

How does the sun sound
Obscured by the moon
Invisible imperceptible waves
That permanently
Blind your mind

Note: Despite mind blindness, don’t be afraid to listen to the eclipse. Put on your earphones and listen to the only eclipse song that matters.

All that you touch
And all that you see
All that you taste
All you feel
And all that you love
And all that you hate
All you distrust
All you save
And all that you give
And all that you deal
And all that you buy
Beg, borrow or steal
And all you create
And all you destroy
And all that you do
And all that you say
And all that you eat
And everyone you meet
And all that you slight
And everyone you fight
And all that is now
And all that is gone
And all that’s to come
And everything under the sun is in tune
But the sun is eclipsed by the moon

Eclipse, Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd

 

The Heart of Shabbat

The Heart of Shabbat

On Shabbat
The mountains walk away
Gone beyond
Not to distract
With grandeur in space
Reminders of time
In their absence

Further reading:

The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel

Mountain and Waters Sutra, Dogen (“The green mountains are always walking”)

The Heart Sutra, translated by Red Pine (“Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha”)

 

Shonda fur di goyim (A shame in front of the non-Jews)

“I want a leader like Trump but more racist, who won’t give his daughter to a Jew…I don’t think you can feel about race the way I do and watch that Kushner bastard walk around with that beautiful girl, okay?”
Charlottesville white supremacist leader Chris Cantwell

Expectations have never been lower for moral courage. Not just for Trump, who has no morality or courage, but for politicos and operatives who seem to believe that keeping silent in the face of horror is the only way to keep power and their jobs.

This is a narrow message about the Jews in Trump’s inner circle, such as chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steve Minuchin, son-in-law Jared Kushner, daughter Ivanka Trump, and others (including, I suppose, Trump’s Jewish grandchildren).

I repeat that expectations are low. But if there is a case where you might expect more or better, it is for Jews at the center of this moment to speak up about a (neo) Nazi attack, such as Cantwell’s targeted screed, or about the crowd in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!”

There is a Yiddish expression, “shonda fur di goyim,” roughly meaning a shame that is embarrassing in front of the non-Jews. I don’t suppose it is any more embarrassing to hear the silence of Cohn, Minuchin, Kushner and Ivanka than it is to observe the diffidence of most elected Republicans. Other Jews can imagine the self-serving rationalizations rolling around in the heads of these high-profile Jews who seem convinced that it is best not to say or do anything, such as denouncing Trump or quitting their posts.

Jews—along with every other besieged and reviled minority—have had to learn the very hard way that when things get this explicit, you not only have to pay attention. You have to take a stand. Why these particular Jews have not done that yet is unfortunate. And a little embarrassing.

Don’t Play the Madman’s Game (Heart of Darkness)

In the face of current events in America, it is easy to say something heartfelt, progressive, outraged, rational and clever. I am tempted, but decline and leave that to other more articulate voices.

Instead, what I want to say right now is this: don’t play the madman’s game. Social and political situations are real and affect the lives of many, and we want to make things better, for ourselves and others. But loud and powerful lunatics can quickly draw us into their craziness, even as we think we are doing the right thing by criticizing, resisting and opposing. Before you venture into the heart of darkness, try to be sure of your own light.

Note: Some literary and film folks may recognize the reference to “heart of darkness.” It is the title of a Joseph Conrad novella, which was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. In unsettled times, in strange lands, charismatic and crazy leaders may emerge, not so much products of the environment as reflections of it, or at least part of it. Read or reread Heart of Darkness, watch or rewatch Apocalypse Now. “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”

Tucson: Psalm of Mountains and Shade

I lift up my eyes to the mountains:
from where will my help come?
Psalm 121:1

For the faithful, the occasionally faithful, and the unfaithful and unbelieving in extreme circumstances, Psalm 121 has served as a song for those seeking relief. It includes a dialogue rare among the psalms. Some say it is an internal dialogue, the psalmist asking a question and answering it himself. Others suggest that the famous biblical question is asked of and answered by a priest.

Robert Alter translates:

A song of ascents.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains:
from where will my help come?
My help is from the LORD,
maker of heaven and earth.
He does not let your foot stumble.
Your guard does not slumber.
.
Look, He does not slumber nor does He sleep,
Israel’s guard.
The LORD is your guard,
the LORD is your shade at your right hand.
By day the sun does not strike you,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD guards you from all harm,
He guards your life.
The LORD guards your going and your coming,
now and forevermore.

Everything about the psalm says Tucson. The mountains are all around; you can’t help but lift your eyes. The question—the plea—is almost as old as the mountains: help, but from where?

Shade at your right hand—at any hand—is a constant need. The sun is as relentless as the mountains. And what about the moon by night? Some think it is a reference to the legendary danger of being moonstruck into madness. Others say it is mere poetry.

The desert, the mountains, the sun, the moon, the madness of life. From where will help come?

The Buddha on 66

The Buddha on 66

The Buddha said to Todd and Buzz
The route is wide and useful
Now a bit neglected
All things die
Even highways
Lend me your Vette
Then walk down the road
To the Blue Swallow Motel
Sleep if you must
But be sure
To wake up

Note: The route is Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Once the great American highway, it has been somewhat passed over by the Interstate, but not surpassed. Some motels and other businesses catering to travelers are gone. The Blue Swallow Motel remains, and is not mere nostalgia. It is a place that allows the past to be present, not because the past is better but because it is different. Todd and Buzz are also past, heroes of a 1960s TV show Route 66, in which they drove around the country in their Corvette, having dramatic adventures. The Buddha is the Buddha, never in Tucumcari, never drove a Corvette, though the route is the way.