Sunday, March 20, 2016

Where Have All of the Honest People Gone?

Howard Walter Florey 1945.jpg

America needs more people like Dr. Howard Florey, one of the researchers who helped develop penicillin. Unlike Martin Shkreli, the odious billionaire opportunist who hiked the price of AIDS medication 5000%, Florey refused to patent penicillin for personal profit. He understood that the benefits for humanity were more important than his own commercial success.

American democracy has been hijacked by corporate interests--lobbyists, Super PACs, defense contractors, and on and on. The two current front runners for the 2016 Presidential race are multi-millionaires with too many corporate ties to list. Donald Trump has exploited capitalism for over three decades, and Hilary Clinton has cozy connections with the likes of Walmart and Super Pacs.

Political cynics will say that's just how America works, but I disagree. Vaclav Havel--Czech writer, political activist, and eventually president of Czechslovakia--is an example of a modern politician who refused to be swayed by corporate interests alone. Like Dr. Florey, Havel lived his ethics, which, I believe, is the best way both to live and to act.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the Buddha was an ethicist. He taught us to do no harm, to realize that separation can lead to violence, and that selfishness eventually brings suffering, both for oneself and for others. Unlike the tide of U.S. faith-based religions that demand adherents to believe a doctrine, Buddhism eschews dogmatism (at least ideally, it does). Doctrine takes backseat to alleviating suffering. Buddhism recognizes that ethics are situational, and that defending principles blindly as though they were absolutes can be dangerous.

For instance, the Buddha didn't teach us to tell the truth always. He asked us to engage our lives, thoughts, and speech, and ask, are my words true, timely, and helpful? It's not that making a living or a profit is inherently wrong; it's that putting one's own greedy interests ahead of public good hurts everyone involved. Why shouldn't people be compensated fairly for their work and innovations?

Vaclav Havel and Dr. Florey understood this. We need a renaissance in ethics--morality, not moralism. Despite what cynics claim, capitalism needn't be greedy, nor government corrupt. And we needn't settle for second-rate leaders.

Demand more.

Thank you Dr. Florey for saving the lives of countless people and animals, and for putting their interest first.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Telling It Like They Want to Hear It

I've been watching this political circus unfold for the past several months, first in good-natured amusement and now in trepidation and revulsion. During this time, I've heard a theme passed from nominee camps that certain candidates, "Tell it like it is."

For the past six years, I've heard this praise heaped upon Chris Christie, the governor of my home state, New Jersey. "Say what you want about him," a Christie supporter will quip, "but he says it like it is."

No, I want to argue, he doesn't. Neither do any other presidential frontrunners receiving those same accolades. These demagogues don't say it like it is; they say it the way that angry people want to hear it. They target a subsection of the population and blame them for all of our societal woes--teachers, unions, immigrants, Muslims, feminists. Essentially, anyone they can get away with blaming.

It's only natural to praise someone for echoing our own deeply held beliefs, and then confuse those views as being correct, "the way things are."

Buddhism cautions us about holding views too closely. All views are just that--views, and by definition, limited. The moment we try to express reality in words, package it inside of concepts, is when we enter the realm of views. Now there's nothing wrong with views; we all have them.

The trick is not to get stuck in them by believing that they are real. That's where the praise of these jingoistic provocateurs intersects with Buddhism. These men are not saying it like it is because there is no way to say it like it is. 

Words can only express views, and all views--being inevitably conceptual--are limited. The goal isn't to transcend all views, for I don't think that's possible; but rather, to see that views are never ultimate.

Be cautious of aggrandizing any view, especially those we happen to believe in. Be equally cautious of anyone who claims to be "telling it like it is," for more than likely they're selling something. And in this presidential race, the common product being pitched is anger and someone to blame.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Rolling on Quicksand

The other week I got stuck in foam. My family and I were at a trampoline park--an indoor cornucopia of trampolines, rock walls, and obstacle courses--and I decided to jump into the foam pit. Basically, you run onto a trampoline, bounce, and then drop into a massive pit filled with cinder-block-sized foam bricks.

Everything was fine until I tried to get out. I couldn't move. Every time that I pressed down on the foam, it just smooshed beneath my weight. I felt trapped, not unlike someone would feel who is stuck in quicksand. Except in this situation, I wasn't sinking; in fact, that was the problem. I wasn't moving, no matter what I did.

Strength wasn't going to help me because the more harder that I pressed on the bricks, the faster they collapsed.

I looked to my wife for help, but what could she do? I'm well over 200 pounds and was several feet away.

I stretched my toes to gain leverage on the floor but soon learned that the floor was a trampoline of sorts, and didn't offer me any purchase.

Finally, my wife told me to roll. So there I was, a sweaty, frustrated mess, rolling my way on my back across this lake of foam. Eventually, I rolled onto the platform and collapsed into a heaving mass. As I panted my way back to sanity, I marveled at how easily the children climbed out of the pit. Lithe and light, they practically sprinted across the obstacle that had proven so difficult for me.

So is the case with life: the more that we struggle, insisting on asserting our will on the world, the more stuck we become. It's only when we relax and settle into the situation, that we can roll with life.

Monday, March 14, 2016

No One Owns the Dharma - Dharma Talk

Zen is not just an East Asian phenomenon; it is an expression of wisdom from all around the world, for it points to a universal human experience prior to words and concepts.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Not for us

Metaphysical similarities and differences aside, I think that what distinguishes Buddhism from Abrahamic religions is the tacit assumption that the world was created for humans. Many people genuinely believe that God created the earth and all of it wonders--trees, animals, and natural resources--for their pleasure.

God made animals for us to eat, trees to chop down, and forests for us to conquer. I cannot think of a more destructive idea. In addition to plain old greed and shortsightedness, this anthropomorphic arrogance lies at the heart of our current environmental. And it's not just a metaphysical dilemma, but an ethical one as well.

How we treat our environment and other beings is central to all branches of ethics, and if it isn't, it should be. What we eat is an ethical decision. The clothes that we decide to buy and the organizations/corporations that we support are all ethical commitments. Just because we don't immediately see the destruction and suffering that our choices cause, doesn't mean that we are free from their consequences.

Reduce suffering and live as harmlessly as possible, that's the ethical instructions the Buddha left us. When we're done meditating, we clean our mats and cushions so that we don't leave a mess. Leave no trace.

If only we could do the same in the world at large.

Earth wasn't created for us, or for anyone for that matter. Respect all life and honor each stone. Let us leave this world in better shape than it was before we got here.