Friday, December 7, 2012
Thursday, December 30, 2010
It's New Years Eve. The fireworks are coming out of their crates, getting ready to fly one time. The gin shots and champagne are icing down. The cabdrivers are getting ready, chanting their mantras. They'll have a nutritious dinner, a couple cans of Red Bull. Then they'll hit the streets, and they'll hit them hard. It's the big night, the one everyone looks forward to.
There's something about New Year's. That bad old year is ending. The bright, shiny new one is coming up. It's a fresh start. We can wipe the slate clean, start over. This time, we'll get it right. We all have our lists of New Year's resolutions. We're all going to lose weight, stop smoking, start working out, learn to play the guitar, learn quantum mechanics. Become enlightened. There's a sense of a new beginning, the idea that anything is possible. I like that idea. I want to believe.
I've got a few resolutions myself.
Really, it's always New Year's. You can always put aside the baggage from your past and start over. It's not easy, but it's there. Like they say, today is the first day of the rest of your life. This moment is the first moment of the rest of your life. And you can treat each moment that way, just go on seeing the world with a full heart and clear eyes, never looking back, living that moment the best you can. That's Zen, right there. Zen is New Year's Day, all the time.
Or, you can spend the year waiting for the next new year. thinking you'll start over then. And then do the same the year after that. It doesn't sound like a plan.
So tonight, between the jello shots and the cheering and the prayers, make this one resolution above all others. This year, every day will bring new hope and new opportunities. Every day will be New Year's Day.
Happy New Year's Day, everyone.
Monday, December 27, 2010
The Dalai Lama posted the text of a talk on world peace on his website this Christmas. Apparently it's a talk he gave some years ago — the references to the Soviet Union are a giveaway —but it's just as relevant today as it was then. It's not just the "Peace on Earth and good will toward all beings" message you get on greeting cards and in beer commercials. That's in there, of course, but there's more to it than that. I won't try to speak for the Dalai Lama — he does a remarkable job of that — but I can provide a link. Click here to read this message.
Some people think of Buddhist practice as an escape from the world and its problems. There's a focus on personal development, individual growth. Buddhists go on retreats and take vows of silence. And we try not to take ourselves or our opinions too seriously. After all, we might be wrong sometimes. And if we get too attached to our opinions, we'll lose that don't know mind, that beginner's spirit. And we'll stop learning.
But we all have to live in this world, and we have to do what we can to make it a better place. There's a bodhisattva vow that's recited in temples all over the world. It's a vow to live our lives only for others. "Beings are numberless, I vow to save them." Partly this is a vow to help all beings to attain enlightenment, a seemingly impossible task. But it also applies to everyday life. Our purpose is to enrich the lives of the people around us in any way we can. We try to lift people up in our day-to-day lives. And in this world, being a bodhisattva means we have to take an active part in the social and political aspects of life.
I have opinions. I'm very passionate about them. But the Dalai Lama points out that solving the problems we face isn't a matter of developing a better understanding of economics or a more advanced technology. He emphasizes a deeper understanding of our human nature and an awareness of our interconnections as human beings. It's a matter of personal development, carried out all over the world. If we can simply learn to be better people, we can live in peace.
And that's what Buddhist practice is all about.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
It's December. This month we celebrate our religious traditions in a very secular way. We take some time off from work. We shop and exchange presents. We eat until we can't eat any more. And we get together with our loved ones and remember why we struggle through the other eleven months of the year.
We have Christmas for the Christians. Kwanzaa for the Africans. Hanukkah for the Jews. The winter solstice for the Wiccans. There's a holiday for almost everyone.
There's a holiday for the Buddhists, too. It's Bodhi Day, or Rohatsu, the day that commemorates the Buddha's enlightenment. It's celebrated on December 8, at least in Japan. And it should be celebrated here, too.
Buddhists deserve a holiday, just like everyone else. We like presents, although we're a little more focused on giving than on receiving. And we like to eat, although we eat more as an experience in mindfulness than as an excuse to stuff ourselves silly. And who doesn't like a day off from work?
Some Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day by meditating for seven days and seven nights, the way the Buddha did. That might be too much for some of us, but this can be a good time to reconnect with our spiritual nature, to reaffirm our commitment to our practice.
There's so much to celebrate on Bodhi Day. The Buddha's enlightenment shows a path that we all can follow to overcome the trials of our lives. The path is a chance for redemption, rebirth. Bodhi Day is a reminder that we can move beyond our trivial and often difficult lives. A reminder that there is hope for us all in the darkness of winter. It's a beacon of hope. We all need that.
And even though Bodhi Day has gone by, we have a long weekend coming up, a weekend when each of us can celebrate in our own way. Bells will be ringing, children singing, lights sparkling through the falling snow. And we can create our own celebration. We can celebrate the Buddha, even while we wait for Santa to glide down from the sky.
Happy Bodhi Day, everybody. And to all a good night.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
It was a decent crowd, but not what you'd expect. After all, it was in a gym, and there wasn't that much publicity. Ry Cooder played a great set to open. When he was done, everyone just milled around. The crews packed up Ry's equipment and started setting up for the Captain. The band wandered in and went up to sit at the back of the stage. No one paid much attention to them. Then the Captain came in. He was wearing a tuxedo and a top hat, with a beautiful woman in a gown on his arm. Everyone watched as they climbed up on the stage and sat with the band. People who'd never seen him before were poking each other, saying, that's him. They all hung around on the back of the stage, had some snacks. maybe a soft drink. After a while one of them went up to the front of the stage and sat down at the drum kit. He started playing, easy at first, then harder. He soloed for about five minutes and by then the whole gym was clapping, cheering him on. The rest of the band ignored him. Then one of the others walked up to the front of the stage and started playing another drum kit that the crew had been setting up. The two of them started dueling away on the drums, trying to outdo each other. The crowd was going wild. Finally, the first drummer got up and walked over to the marimba and started playing that. He was Ed Marimba, and he played the marimba in the band. He wasn't the drummer.
After a while each of the band members went up to the front, picked up an instrument and started playing. They were just improvising, working off each other with no plan at all. The Captain just sat back there with his date, paying no attention. Finally, he got up, walked to the center of the stage where his mike was set up. He was carrying a cornet. He stood there and blew one long note into the mike. Then he smiled a little and nodded.
That was sound check.
Captain Beefheart — also known as Don Van Vliet — was a high school friend of Frank Zappa's. Zappa gave him the nickname. They played music together, and when Zappa made it big, he helped his friend to get started. The Captain formed the Magic Band. They played a combination of blues, swamp rock and surrealism that's hard to describe even now. The Captain sang like Tom Waits with a four-octave range and the band was tight and smoking hot. One of their albums, Trout Mask Replica, was ranked #58 on Rolling Stone's 500 Best Albums of all time. His other albums, like "Lick My Decals Off, Baby," "Doc at the Radar Station," and my own favorite, "The Spotlight Kid," got great reviews and cult status. The band mostly played clubs — and gymnasiums — and they never sold a lot of records. But they never gave in. They never sold out. And their fans loved them for it.
I was one of them. Every time they came to Boston, I was there. And so were all my friends. One show, they played the Music Hall and the New York Dolls opened, followed by Larry Coryell, the fusion jazz guitarist. Most of the crowd thought the Dolls were a comedy act, but they warmed up to Coryell. They were all great shows. The last time I saw the Captain some years had gone by. It was the late seventies. He was playing a club, doing new material with a new band. It was a good show, but it just wasn't the same.
The Captain retired from music in 1982. He took up his real love, painting, and became a successful but reclusive artist. His paintings were as uncompromising as his music, dramatic expressionist canvasses that reached out and grabbed the viewer, shook him. Like his music, his paintings weren't pretty, but they were unforgettable.
Captain Beefheart died last week. He was 69, and he had Multiple Sclerosis, an incurable disease of the nervous system that causes a wide range of neurological symptoms, leading to physical and mental disability and, ultimately death. Victims often live for thirty years or more, declining in stages. It's a hard way to go.
I don't know what Captain Beefheart's final years were like. It has to be hard for someone like him, to go through that decline, knowing where it leads. The Captain knew the highs of performing live, cheered by thousands of adoring fans. And he knew what it was to die slowly, without hope, his body betraying him day by day. I hope he was at peace. I hope he was able to accept his fate, to see it as simply a part of a life well-lived.
This is blog about what it means to be a Buddhist. It's not an entertainment blog or a rock-n-roll blog. It's not a way of remembering my own favorites. But the Captain's death is a reminder for me. Things go wrong. That diagnosis can come at any time. That bolt of lightning, the one you didn't see coming, might be just around the corner. All we can do is live our lives the best we can while we have them. We can make the most of what we have.
I think Captain Beefheart did that. I hope he did.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
RIDING THE GREAT WAVE
I have a framed print of Hokusai's “The Great Wave" on my living room wall. It's one of the world's most recognizable works of art, a dramatic scene of brave fishermen in their tiny boats struggling to survive in an angry sea. The print is a little smaller than my sofa. I look at it every morning before I go out into the world and I smile just a little.
Katsushika Hokusai was a Japanese artist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He produced over 30,000 works of art, ranging from simple sketches called manga to a 600 foot long portrait of the Zen master Daruma. Most of his art was in the form of woodblock prints and were widely circulated. In that time, Japan was closed off from the outside world, but some Dutch art was smuggled in by traders. From that, Hokusai learned techniques of perspective and shading and used them to revolutionize Japanese art. He even introduced elements of surrealism in his work. He also broke with tradition by depicting ordinary people engaged in everyday activities. Before Hokusai, only the privileged appeared in works of art.
Hokusai was also an eccentric, along the lines of Western artists like Van Gogh, Dali and Picasso. He was stubborn, cranky, and single-mindedly devoted to his art. He signed one of his late works, “The Art-Crazy Old Man.” No one argued with that.
“The Great Wave” is one of a series of woodblock prints, Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, which was produced when Hokusai was in his seventies. It was a huge popular success and made Hokusai the leading artist of his time. Some are actually views of Mount Fuji itself: most, like “The Great Wave,” are scenes of Japanese life with Mount Fuji rising in the background.
Mount Fuji is the highest point in Japan, a dormant volcano that last erupted in 1707. Throughout Japanese history, the mountain has been the subject of myth and legend, a sacred mountain. Hokusai was a Nichiren Buddhist, and in that tradition Mount Fuji was seen as a symbol of immortality. It was visible from Edo (now Tokyo), Hokusai's home, and it held a lifetime fascination for him. Even today, the mountain is a wonder of nature, a volcanic cone towering over the flat land.
For me, Hokusai's Mount Fuji is a symbol of inner calm, of our true nature. Enlightenment. It's really as close to immortality as we ever get. In “The Great Wave,” the fishermen are being thrown about by a furious sea. The largest wave towers over them, threatening to crush them. But they paddle along bravely while Mount Fuji stands behind them, majestic and unmoved.
It's like life. The world is in turmoil. Our lives are often hard. We are buffeted by the events of everyday life. There's not much we can do about that. The waves of our lives seem to tower over us like the waves in Hokusai's print. We are thrown around like the fishermen. All we can do is keep paddling. And keep that mountain in our hearts.
So as I go out to face the world this morning, I look at “The Great Wave” and I smile. The waves I'll face today aren't nearly that bad. And I'll keep the mountain in mind.