Rain Check

So, I’ve been grading a lot this weekend and a bit last weekend, so I haven’t been able to post. I apologize. Since I am a bit brain drained at the moment, I don’t trust my writing. But I do trust my usual millennial acumen to share something from the internet,an interesting PBS documentary about the Buddha:

Enjoy!

Simplicity

I apologize for not posting lately. I’ve been moving into school and prepping for the semester. I have a post in mind that I hope to write soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to post a video that I come to now and then: Alain de Botton’s take on Epicurus.

Epicurus and the “Epicurean” way of life has taken an odd turn through the ages, earning the connotation that it’s easy, hedonistic, and pleasure-focused. We have Epicurean.com, for example, which is all about food. It often contrasts Stoicism’s emphasis on endurance and austerity with a fat, easy life of comfort and self-gratification.

Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]
Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]

But, as you can probably expect, the original Epicurus and his followers were not nearly so “epicurean” and had much in common with their rival school, the Stoics, in ways of general beliefs and lifestyles. Both wanted the good life and both emphasized that one’s behavior required a certain logic and virtue in order to find it. Moreover, both emphasized simplicity.

For Epicurus and his philosophy, one of the key means to this happiness was simplicity. Simply your life, he might say, and you have less to fret over. A bit like Thoreau’s philosophy with Walden: strip life to its must fundamental points, and you can live it with fewer distractions, getting more out of it. Or as he famously put it:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

"Live deliberately" in this replica of Thoreau's cabin
“Live deliberately” in this replica of Thoreau’s cabin [Image from Wikipedia]

Epicurus also wanted to “reduce [life] to its lowest terms,” emphasizing fundamentals like friendship, freedom, meaningful tasks, and time to reflect. He ate simply, preferring water, bread, and vegetables over wine and and banquets. He also worked hard. But he kept those fundamental “pleasures,” like friendship, nearby.

Epicurus and Thoreau are not alone in this perspective. It’s common to many religions and many self-help guides–from the mundane to the truly helpful. The Buddha, for example, has a famous story in which a farmer interrupts his teaching to ask if they have seen his cows. The farmer is fretting and saying he might kill himself if he can’t find them. The Buddha cannot help. When the man walks away, the Buddha tells his followers how lucky they are that they do not have to worry over such things. For him, the greatest possession is freedom.

Currently moved into my townhouse, I have a very simple arrangement–few decorations, the basics in kitchen, clothes, and hygiene. I’m sure I’ll acquire more, especially as my fellow suite-mates move in, but for now I must content myself with these and seek out other, deeper pleasures. We shall see how that goes. But for now, I’ll remember Epicurus:

Zen and everyday life

lotus_flower
[Image from North Dakota State University]
I had plans for another post today, in light of a fellow blogger nominating me for a Liebster Award. But a night at a Franciscan retreat center has prompted me to write something a little different.

Since I first learned about Buddhism in high school, I’ve been interested in it. I still remember filling out answers to the Four Noble Truths on quizzes in the front of my ninth grade class, alongside sanskrit terms.

Since then, I’ve come a long way.

An independent study in Buddhist philosophy, numerous books, a few meditation retreats, and a daily meditation practice that lasted a few years have all increased my awareness in Buddhism, especially Zen.

But two winters ago, my interest culminated in a three day retreat at a Zen monastery in the Catskills. I still recall the final day of the retreat. After the exhausting stints of 5 a.m. zazen meditation and work projects–where I silently cracked over a hundred eggs–we concluded with a koan and a dharma talk by the sensei. The koan was about the diamond sutra, a central text in Mahayana Buddhism, called “diamond” because a true understanding allows one to cut through illusion and ignorance like a diamond.

The sensei brought up the ending of the sutra itself:

“So I say to you – 
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:”

“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; 
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, 
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”

Thus spoke Buddha.

Building on the Buddhist notion of impermanence–that life contains unceasing flux and change–the sensei stressed our need to “leave no footprints” as we moved through life, negotiating the tricky balance of “equanimity,” a peaceful abiding between aversion and desire that does not fall into indifference. Life is indeed brief. It is full of change and interdependence. Like a dream, things come and go.

Sitting in zazen position, legs folded and “heart open,” I felt a change. Buddhism traditionally has different levels of understanding, ranging from the merely intellectual to the silent but sure understanding of an Enlightened one. Somewhere between lies a heart understanding, where one truly “feels” a new insight that cannot fit into words.

In the midst of the dharma talk, I felt that insight.

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Alan Watts on a Sunday

I need to get some serious work done on a few things today, so I don’t have time to type up my usual post–I swear I’m getting better at this, haha–but rather than leave you with nothing, I wanted to post a video with a spattering of Alan Watts lectures.

Alan Watts was a notable (though some would say notorious) Zen practitioner who dabbled in a variety of other fields, from philosophy to physics. Born in 1915 and dying in 1975, he spent much of his life lecturing and writing, becoming a central figure in the counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s. His thoughts are often iconoclastic and his metaphors can be pointed, so few read Watts indifferent or unchanged.

A wealth of Alan Watts lectures exist on YouTube. Some users pair them with music and inspiring images or splice together clips of crowded city streets and airy mountaintops. This particular one is a short collection of meaningful excerpts animated by the creators of South Park. Some of the excerpts are quite insightful. Others are a little more out there, depending on your taste. But on the whole, they do give a brief view of Watts’ style and insights.

I hope you enjoy this, question it, and enter the week with some new ideas. Cheers.

“I Am”: A sense of self

Image courtesy of Forbes.com
Image courtesy of Forbes.com

In 1841 a little-known English poet escaped an asylum and wandered back to his childhood home in the farmland of Northamtonshire, convinced that he was married to a woman who had died three years earlier.

The poet, John Clare, said that separation from his childhood home–its fields, cottages, and the small taverns where he worked–had made him increasingly alienated from his own self. His later poems reflect his fixation. In one he claims that he was once Shelly and Lord Byron. In his most famous one, “I Am,” he reflects on his isolation:

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;

My friends forsake me like a memory lost:

I am the self-consumer of my woes—

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes

And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed.

Isolated and unknown, Clare clings to the few activities, memories, and passions that adhere to his fragmented self. This raises an important question: Who is this “I Am” Clare speaks of, separated from his roots? Who is an I? What is a self?

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Making the Switch

Dave glances at my plate of spinach, beans, and brown rice as I eye the meatballs Not me... yetnestled in his spaghetti.

“You eat like a rabbit,” he says.

“Rabbits don’t generally eat garbanzo beans or cooked rice,” I reply.

“But still…”

As the conversation changes, he forgets my rabbit food, and I forget his meat. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we have.

According to a 2008 study by Harris Interactive Service, about 7.3 million people are vegetarian in the United States—that’s about 3.2 percent of the population. Most are young, from middleclass backgrounds, and live in the Western or Southern regions of the United States. I’m one of them, a skinny, grain-eating, tofu-crunching middle-class American.

Nothing radical there.

We vegetarians eat about three meals per day—just like our omnivorous counterparts. We don’t all use organic paper and beet-juice ink or attend regular services at hippy churches on weekends.  Most aren’t PETA extremists who throw red paint at fur coats and survive on seaweed and unpronounceable grains. Perhaps our farts smell a little bad sometimes, or we’re be a pain to take out to dinner, but most of us are pretty normal. At least I think so.

Still, some people berate me with things like, “why the hell would you do that?” or “we deserve to eat animals,” or my personal favorite, “you’re going to die because you’re not getting enough protein.”

Others aren’t so malicious. They just don’t understand, or grow up thinking that all vegetarians fit the same model. But we are all very different and have very different reasons for becoming vegetarian.

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Dredging the self

This Monday, I dug up a crate of my old writing from my parent’s cellar. Journals,

Ah yes, my high school self...
Ah yes, my high school self…

poems, old short stories, math notebooks lined with marginal musings. Anything I could find. I fished love letters from my closet and photographs from my mothers’ desk, piling it all up like autumn leaves on my bedroom floor.

For a few days, I dug trough the stack.

OK, so “stack” may be a little exaggerated. But it’s a significant pile. I’m reread it all to revisit those hazy landscapes of my not-too-distant childhood, verifying events and reviving old memories, all in a pointed search of self.

I’m writing a memoir for my Honor’s project. I know I could half-ass most of it. But I’d get nothing from that besides reams of pleasant-sounding pulp. I don’t want that.

I’m after my own self, after all.

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The Ticking is the Bomb Review

Image
The Ticking is the Bomb, as seen on Amazon.com

I propped open The Ticking is the Bomb by Nick Flynn while sitting on my bed in a Zen Monastery, day two of a spiritual pilgrimage. It’s an older book, coming out in 2012, but a teacher recommended it.

The day started just before 5 a.m., when some monk jangled a handful of bells outside the door. At the time, I imagined he took a sadistic joy in it.

“Hey, here’s a crammed group of exhausted travelers—how can I give a good start to the day?” he probably thought. “Loud bells!”

Rubbing my head, I greeted the others with a nod.

Night still drenched the windowpanes in reflection as we entered the meditation hall. I crossed my legs into a half-lotus and a bell pitched the space into silence, broken occasionally by the rattling radiator or the rasp of a stuffy nose.

I wrestled with my thoughts for the next hour or so. The rest of the day blurred as we moved from one lecture to another and a silent work call. I stayed in the kitchen, cracking 160 eggs for a massive casserole.

Thirteen hours after waking up, I was choking on Zen. Flynn’s tense prose challenged the backdrop of silence that permeated the day. But I needed it.

Continue reading “The Ticking is the Bomb Review”