I have studied Spanish for quite some time, starting back in high school and then for a while in college. In more recent years, I’ve taken an interest again. First, because I think it’s a beautiful language. Also it’s practical. I have many patients who speak Spanish. Though I use an interpreter in session, because I am far from fluent, they seem to appreciate it when I try to use what Spanish I have to communicate with them. I feel we bond better as a team when I make the attempt.
When I was in graduate school for speech-language pathology, I learned a great deal about language differences. From a linguist’s perspective, this is primarily in regard to syntax and vocabulary. From the speech-language pathologist’s perspective, however, it has more to do with what a language says about the way in which a person’s thoughts are organized and the perspective they have about the world. This is important to be able to parse out, especially when one is trying to decide whether a person is language disordered or whether they just have insufficient knowledge of the English language and/or mainstream American culture.
In this context, I started thinking about the fact that Spanish has two words for the verb “to be” - “ser” and “ester”. The web site studyspanish.com describes the difference as being one of “condition” versus “essence”. This is to say that “ser” refers to an essential state of being. “Estar” refers to a condition, or a transient state. For example, the sentence “the apple is green” can have two meanings. Either the apple is transiently green on its way to being ripe, or the apple is meant to be green when it is ripe. In the first case, one would use the verb “estar” to indicate that the green state will be changing. In the latter case, one would use the verb “ser” to indicate that the green state is a permanent essential part of the apple.
In terms of using language to indicate one’s mental perspective on the world, this differentiation creates an interesting conundrum for a Buddhist. After all, our fundamental perspective is that nothing is permanent and nothing has an essential substance. Perhaps we should just speak of relative terms then? Relatively permanent? In this corner of the space-time continuum permanent? Permanent when not meditating? Permanent when one hand is not clapping? Katz!
It probably doesn’t matter that much any way - at least for me. My Spanish grammar is thoroughly underwhelming when I’m trying to speak. For now, I’ll just focus on the kind of mental permanence that allows me to retrieve any Spanish words at all when I need them and let the interpreter try to sort it out when the patient gets that “huh?” face.
It’s finally complete. After having been hacked almost a year ago, I have finally finished reconstructing the Average Buddhist Blog.
Yes, yes, yes…there’s the irony. I’m a Buddhist blogger who’s so attached to my past posts I was willing to dig through internet archives to get them back. (Of course keeping copies of them when I posted them would have been waaaaayyy too easy, right?) What could go wrong if they’re safely locked away in the WordPress interface?
What could go wrong indeed?
As much effort as it took to reassemble everything, it was an amazing experience to reread the posts, look back at all my old thoughts and perspectives. It was kind of like being able to travel in time…and since I’m a big Doctor Who fan, that’s all right with me.
So, it would seem that releasing attachment and burying and forgetting are different beasts. Keeping a thread of connection to the past can help illuminate a way forward.
While I’m here, I want to give a really, really, REALLY big shout out to the “Wayback Machine” a.k.a., the “Internet Archive”. They take snapshots of web sites and catalog and index them for retrieval or reference in the future. Through them, I was able to find all of the old snapshots of the Average Buddhist Blog as it existed back then. Thanks to them, I had the order, dates and most importantly the content of every post that was lost. (Except I think the very last one before I was locked out) I am beyond grateful that this service exists and plan on sending them a donation. I’m posting their information here, in case you’d like to do the same. If you have a blog, family site or anything that you would like to ensure doesn’t get lost to the impermanence of cyberspace, you’ll be happy they’re around. http://archive.org/donate/
Last Thursday, it finally happened. I was hacked. It started with the notice from my internet service provider that there was malware on the Average Buddhist site and that they had shut down my whole account. Six days of back and forth with technical support and it's finally gone. Gone too is the WordPress architecture. It seems that keeping up with the precautions necessary for using an Open Source system is beyond what I have the time resources for. So I begin again.
The most obvious buddhist message in this debacle is that of the Impermanence of all things. It's what I thought of first, but as I rebuild No Ground is what really stands out for me. Why? I'm not one of those millions of people out there who uses weak passwords or who shares passwords between sites. My user names are also quite diverse. It never occurred to me that the software I was using would have backdoors open to any hacker or bot that happened by. Despite everything I try to do to protect myself (or my things or my blog or my family and friends), there will be things that happen anyway. There is no way to be in control of all of our outcomes. There is No Ground to cling to in that regard.
In No Ground though we can have experiences we might not have, like the generous support of some folks from the Facebook group who helped me understand how to retrieve the bulk of my posts from the internet ether. I had the opportunity to be grateful. Retrieving the posts gave me a change to skim them again and revisit the thoughts of Average Buddhist past.
In honor of the relaunching of the blog, I am re-posting Average Buddhist's very first blog post, which is about the most inspirational person I have had the good fortune of meeting - Arthur Lessac. I'll work on repopulating the archives over time. I hope you enjoy this new beginning.
When You Walk, Do You Feel Like You're Dancing?
(Original post date: 4/15/11)
It’s funny that the first post in a blog about Buddhism isn’t going to talk about Buddhism at all. I’m not going to talk about how much I love Pema Chödrön or expound on my insights into life. Instead, I’m going to honor the spirit of a man who recently passed away and who was for me one of the most inspirational people I have come into direct contact with – Arthur Lessac.
For those of you who don’t know of him, he is one of the great voice/movement/expression teachers of our time. And “our time” is expansive in this sense. Arthur Lessac died at age 101, only a few days after teaching an extensive course in Croatia.
Arthur Lessac (see URL below)
I met Arthur Lessac last year (2010) at a course with speech-language pathologists and singing teachers (of which I am both). One hundred years old at the time, he bench pressed a 200 pound man, led us in movement and dance exercises and spoke in a voice as clear and strong as anyone I’ve known. He exuded a joy in the exploration of life that was both genuine and inspiring.
Walking to work this morning, I thought about him and remembered how he used to encourage us all to walk as if we are dancing. Energy (NRG) will carry you in a way you wouldn’t expect. I thought about his demonstration of that last year and some clips of him in memorium that I watched yesterday. So, I started to dance to work, copying his bouncing and circular arm and leg motions and I was instantly consumed by joy.
This was the most intensely genuine emotional experience I have had in quite some time. It was akin to my experience in sitting meditation with a Zen group, when they asked us all to turn around and face the wall – WHITE. That was it. Today; JOY. That was it.
So, that is why I decided to write about everyday Buddhism. See you soon!
To learn more about Arthur Lessac’s work, visit: http://lessacinstitute.org
(link updated 1/28/15)
It’s close enough to New Year’s when I could write a wonderful post using “soap” as a metaphor for the cleaning out of the old year and cultivating a willingness to forge into the new year free of attachments and clinging. Alas, this is not that post. (If that’s what you’re looking for, go to our friend Google. I’m sure there’s one out there…)
No, this is literally a post about soap. An actual bar of soap. It was my favorite bar of soap. And now it’s gone. Sniff. Pout.
It smelled so good. I remember getting it at some kind of all natural store…but I can’t remember where. Since the label has long since hit the recycling, there’s no hope of finding it elsewhere. No. My favorite bar of soap is no more. There is no way to replace it. In the indelible words of Monty Python, this soap “has drawn the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It is an ex-soap.”
The human condition is so amusing, isn’t it? When I can find myself whining “awwwwwww…” at the end of this little sudsy reminder of impermanence. What a blessing though to be given at least one shenpa that is easy to release! Now that’s a New Year’s gift I can really be thankful for.
Alas, poor Soap. I knew you well.
I just finished reading “Look Me In The Eye”, which is the story of a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, who didn’t know it until he was 40.
Near the end, the author discussed the way in which he was able make peace with his dysfunctional father prior to his father’s death. He recollected his conversations with him about the happier times of his childhood (much of it was not happy at all).
For some reason it reminded me of the last conversation I had with my grandfather in 2004 (I believe) – amazing that it’s already been 10 years. We called him “Tatsie”. He suddenly got ill with acute lymphoma. Although he had been a very healthy 88-year old going to the gym 3 – 4 times a week, doing a workout that rivals my own, the doctor’s seemed to just give up right away and say “He wouldn’t be strong enough to handle the treatment.”
It made me viciously angry. Even more I couldn’t understand the attitude of my grandparents. They kept saying things like “They’re the professionals, they know what they’re talking about. Don’t bother them with questions.”
As an aside, since I work in healthcare I understand how often “they” really don’t know what they’re talking about. It made me so angry at them that my grandparents and the doctors gave up without a fight! Without considering how physically strong he was before becoming ill. The doctors only saw a number on a page – his age – and left it at that. My grandparents never questioned their authority.
In our last conversation before I left his room, I told him that I loved him and was scared for him, but for some reason I was also scared for me. I really really didn’t want him to go. He died less than three weeks after diagnosis, without the medical establishment doing much of anything to even try to help him.
For some reason, more than almost anyone else I wonder for him what happens after death. He was a Christian. I suppose he believed in heaven, but come to think of it I never asked. Since I (think I) believe in the cycle of reincarnation until one reaches a state where they can join the universal energy that might be called nirvana – that would mean he could be somewhere else in the world right now. Or maybe in some alternate universe…which I would wish more for him, heaven or a new life in a new body, I can’t say with certainty.
I only know that all these years later, I still miss him
One of the better posts to come out of the American Buddhist blog recently was this post about busyness. Whitaker’s discussion centers around an article I also read and cross-posted to the Facebook community. It was called The ‘Busy Trap’ from the New York Times. In Whitaker’s blog post he refers to the many things he has floating around in the space of to-do, that there are things in the forefront and things on the back burner. He reflects on how lost these things can get over time – as well as in time.
There is certainly something to be gleaned from an examination of the relative importance of the things that take up our lives. It is too easy to get pulled into trivialities that in the end have no meaning for us. The world tries to require a trivial focus from us. Deciding to opt out of those time and energy sucking vortices can have its consequences. The NY Times article takes that perspective and brings us the time-honored word of warning that we may be missing out on MORE IMPORTANT THINGS (emphasis mine).
Yes, time-honored, but how true is is really?
When I look at the churning waves of things I do each day, week, month, year how judgmental should I really be? After all, what is it I should be doing instead? Yes, yes, philosophers may argue there is just as much “value” in staring at the ceiling as there is in writing a business report – or a blog post for that matter. But it really depends on your definition of the word value. If we all took hours at a time to stare at the ceiling and contemplate the meaning of life, as a community we would lose some of the greatest creative masterpieces and advancements that actually have made our lives better than the lives of the cave people. That those creative masterpieces and advancements come part and parcel with a lot of chum is irrelevant.
My favorite quote from Whitaker’s blog post was the following:
Yes, life is too short to be busy. But sometimes it’s also too short to say no to busyness
That our lives are filled – sometimes to the brim – is not always a bad thing. Placing judgments on the way in which we or others spend the time we have on this planet is the height of dualistic thinking “a is bad; b is good” and does nothing but increase our suffering and that of the people around us through our constant second-guessing of whether or not we are making the best and highest use of our time. If we are busy, if we are not, we still must be. Some day we won’t be. That will be that.
I have a habit of wandering graveyards when I’m upset. It calms me and helps put problems in perspective. Life is short and ends too soon for most of our liking. The worries and anger that consume us now will be wiped away in the decay of time.
Far from being upsetting to me, graveyards are serene. When it comes to its residents, the struggle is over. Depending on your belief, dukkha has either ceased or transitioned to another form. In either case it has become divorced from the person who used to be, whose body now decays underground. Theirs is a past history and many more will join them in the ground in the future. So, humbled I can better focus on the present moment.
When there is some kind of problem, a graveyard also represents the collective wisdom of the life experiences of those who are interred there – kind of like a collective ancestral shrine. I can turn to any random headstone and say, “Okay, T CRANE, what would you do?” Perhaps I’ll receive insight as an answer.
Usually, it’s just silence, though. T CRANE comes back with, “Darned if I know. Figure it out for yourself.” Thanks, Dude. They put fresh flowers on your grave for that gem?
When I first learned about Tibetan charnel ground practice, I thought ewwwww! Then I thought, hmmmm… For those who don’t know, the charnel ground is a place high in the mountains where the dead are brought to be offered to the vultures. I am told they can be messy places where scattered human remains can be found randomly lying around with a smell that is less than daisy fresh. This practice came about largely because of the frozen temperatures in the highest communities in Tibet. Digging holes in the ground for burials is not an option most of the year.
There is a wonderful pictorial review of a “sky burial” here (Warning: parents review pictures before showing to your children)
The more I thought about it, I recognized that practicing in a charnel ground is really only an extension of my current practice in graveyards. The single addition is the potentially jarring presence of a disarticulated hand or eyeball to bring one back to the present moment like a visual gong. Living in America, of course, the opportunity for charnel ground practice is limited.
I’ve written previously about my reflections of A Day in Pompeii (as of this writing in Cincinnati). In one corner of the exhibit, I was brought to a startled standstill. There were two large sections of street strewn with skeletons piled on one another. This composition of human carnage was not from Pompeii, but from its nearby neighbor Herculaneum.
According to the descriptions of the artifacts, Herculaneum was somewhat closer to Mount Vesuvius and the first pyroclastic flows reached Herculaneum before reaching Pompeii. Apparently, great blasts of accelerated hot air rushed through Herculaneum, incinerating the flesh from the bodies of all in their path. The result was a sobering tableau of instant annihilation.
Flash of Bodhiccita. I think this is the closest I have come to charnel ground practice. In it resides the reflection of every human catastrophe that has been and each that is to come. Meditation on this simple fact of our fragility individually and even as a group commands me to stop my moaning and just get on with life in the present moment.
Early this year, I took my younger daughter to the Museum of Science in Boston to see a special exhibit on Pompeii. Though I’ve been fascinated by the story of the buried city since I was a child, I never knew how many misconceptions I had about this historic tragedy. To begin with, I believed the entire population of Pompeii was buried in the sudden explosion of Mount Vesuvius. At the exhibit I learned a great majority of the people escaped across the Bay of Naples.
I previously thought the figures of the citizens’ of Pompeii’s last moments on Earth were ossified remains. In fact, the bodies of the victims of the eruption decomposed long ago leaving hollowed out cocoons in the ash. An archeologist named Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a technique wherein figures of the victims at the moments of their deaths could be recreated using these hollows as a molds for plaster castings.
Some part of me was disappointed the figures of the Pompeiians were not “real.” Another part of me chastised myself for for being unforgivably morbid.
It was fortunate that the plaster figures were placed near the end of the exhibit. By the time we arrived, we had seen frescos, oil lamps, furniture and a petrified loaf of bread. We had learned that Pompeii was famous for its fermented fish paste, which had been a popular export at the time. They even had fast food take out! The construction of the exhibit allowed us to construct an image of a vibrant, complex civilization that was more than a pile of abandoned corpses.
Viewing the casts of those who died in the eruption was intensely emotional. We found ourselves in uncomfortable proximity with the agony of death. The postures and poses of the dead revealed deep sadness and yet resolve. I felt like a voyeur, trespassing on the intimacy of the passing of these fellow beings. Despite this, I was also assaulted by the emptiness of it all.
There was no spirit, no bone, no flesh. There was no physical remnant of the pain and panic reflected in the statues before us. The figures were at once heart-wrenching and insubstantial, just like all our suffering. It is present in the moment then gone, both individually tragic and interdependently arising.
No names travelled with the figures from their resting places to this exhibit. Their money, status and identities were gone. In this regard, each of these reflections of suffering also revealed its ultimate impermanence and imposed upon us the recognition of our own.
Human society changes. Cultural metaphors change. Languages change. In terms of Buddhist belief everything changes. It is said that an unbiased look at everything will reveal the ultimate impermanence of every thing and every condition.
I have been accused of being somewhat cynical in terms of the human propensity for greed, selfishness and craving. While I recognize the ultimate impermanence of all things and conditions, my unbiased (biased?) look at human nature reveals to me that these propensities never change.
So, I went to the Pompeii exhibit at the Museum of Science Boston and while there are a few more “profound” ideas I plan to share in future posts, there was one thing I found strikingly humorous in terms of what it communicates about people and craving.
A set of loaded dice.
A two thousand-year old set of loaded dice.
This has been going on forever!
Spring has come early to the Boston area. Already in mid-March we are enjoying days in the high 70′s and 80′s. Ignoring what that may mean for global climate change and for August (given the paucity of snow that fell this year), I’m loving it!
Today, I passed by my favorite tree that I wrote about previously and noticed a few updates. First I noticed the beautiful ring of crocuses that have popped up around the base of the tree.
I noticed that buds are starting to form on the branches. Despite it’s hardships, it looks like this tree is going to pop into full bloom!
And one more thing…
Yes, another little support added by the tree’s owner – rope this time, tying some of the internal branches to one another.
A little rope, some wooden and metal support to hold our branches in place while we bloom – aren’t we all like that?
Now buy the Book!