Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mumonkan, Koan 3: Gutei Raises A Finger

Whenever Gutei Osho was asked about Zen, he simply raised his finger. Once a visitor asked Gutei's boy attendant: "What does your master teach?" The boy too raised his finger. Hearing of this, Gutei cut off the boy's finger with a knife. The boy, screaming with pain, began to run away. Gutei called to him and, when turned around, Gutei raised his finger. The boy suddenly became enlightened.

There's a big difference between someone answering a question about Zen by raising a finger, and someone saying a master teaches people to raise their finger. It's not that the boy really thought that all his master was teaching people was to raise their finger, but the fact that the boy attached significance to this action was mistaken. True understanding cannot be handed off in canned answers from one person to the next.

This is the danger of trying to communicate Zen learning directly, of 'feeding it' to people. The extreme lesson Gutei taught this boy was that truth is inside of him. Even without his finger, he can access it. This led the boy to make a leap and become enlightened.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Putting The Gloves On

Today in Hapkido, I got to put the gloves on and go to it with my punches! There are a series of six punches and, with the gloves on, and I had to throw the punches at the senior belt's hands (which are encased in thick pads). Plus you have to keep your hands in position around your face as a guard when the arm is not throwing a punch.

The catch is that the senior belt calls out numbers from one to six. If he calls 'one', then you throw the first punch in the series. If he calls 'two', you throw the first and second punch in quick succession. And so on. You never know what number is going to get called, and sometimes they fake you out. Like they will call 'one' a bunch of times in a row, and you just send out the quick jab that is punch one over and over. Then all of a sudden they say 'five' or 'six' and you have to immediately go from that repetitive motion into the full set. It can really throw you!

On top of that, they move in a slow circle. So you have to adjust your stance so that you can still punch the target. Then they throw in another curve ball. They'll start moving their hands to different positions with each punch so you aren't sure where you are going to have to throw those punches. I imagine this is to simulate a real fight situation where what you are going to hit might not always be in the same set place.

Overall, I made plenty of mistakes but, for the most part, I did much better than I thought I would for my first go at this! The sound of my punches on the pad was this loud BAM, and that was hot! I REALLY enjoyed it, and it's amazing how it only takes ten or fifteen minutes of this to get the sweat pouring. It is hard work!

LOVE IT!!!!!

Thwarted By The Heat

For the first time in a really long time, I pulled out some drawing supplies and went outside to sit and do some sketches. I always get the urge in the Spring, because Jim is always working in the garden planting new flowers guiding me around to show me he's moved stuff, and pointing out where new stuff is flowering.  There are so many colors, and I learned long ago that color is the main thing I respond to as a visual artist or art appreciator.

So out I went with my pad, my pastel crayons (wonderfully messy - I'm as fascinated by the mixture of colors that wind up smeared on my hands as a gypsy with a cup of tea leaves), and support materials (q-tips, charcoal, etc). I picked a spot, sat, and began laying out some flowers with contour drawing and then started adding the color in.

My contour drawings are the best ones I do, because whenever people make a loud comment about a drawing I've done it has always been the ones I do this way - working from real objects or people. However, the frustrating thing for me is that these drawings always look sloppy and half-baked to me. As a result, there is a very long time between starting a picture and working with it, when I am looking at it and thinking it's a total piece of crap. This is probably why I never pursued art; I just don't have the ability to see what I'm doing objectively.

Anyway, I was only able to work on it for a half and hour or so before the 90-degree heat and high humidity got to me. (I had wisely chosen to start this little project right around 1 or 2PM when the heat of the day is at its worst).  So I went back inside. Another reason I am not an artist; I lack that all consuming passion. The partially started picture is here in my study, really all ready for me to work again. I hope I do, but that day my attention strayed and I felt the urge to read some more.

On the plus side, I did go out and draw for the first time in years! I have forgotten how much I enjoy it; it's such an escape. I can shut out the whole world and enter a place - my drawing - that is all mine and consumes all my attention and thoughts.  At least for a little while!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mumonkan, Koan 1: Joshu's Mu

"A monk asked Joshu, "Has a dog the Buddha nature?" Joshu answered "Mu."

First of all, "mu' is a word that meaning nothingness. Many zen practitioners speak it during meditation to clear the mind. (I personally dislike this, because I feel that focusing on 'nothingness' is still a focus and, therefore, is not really clearing the mind).

I meditated on this koan at night. After a while, I suddenly thought to myself: "Is the moonlight on my skin touching it or just illuminating it?" With this, I got the answer to the koan.

Joshu's answer meant that it's irrelevant whether a dog has the buddha nature. What has that got to do with anything? The way to truth for oneself is not by posing and answering a lot of dumb questions; it's by meditating and getting in touch with your mind where all the answers are. In a sense, he may even be saying: "Why are you asking me? Meditate and you can learn the answer for yourself."

This may not seem like much of an insight, but think about how - if you practiced it regularly - how much more self-reliant you would be.  How many times you might think before you ask a question to see if you already know the answer. Sometimes, when we ask someone else for an answer, it's because we hope they won't tell us the one we know deep inside is the right one. 

If you can picture this, then you can get an idea of how powerful meditation can be.


I mentioned in an earlier post that I might start writing about what I learn while sitting in zazen (meditation) and working on koans. After all, this blog is called 'Zen Thrown Down'! I've really shied away from doing so up to now, because much of this is really personal and private.  I also find that it's almost impossible to put into words without it seemingly like I sat in meditation and came out of it with a simple truth that you might find wrapped in a fortune cookie.

The thing is that Zen is about simple truth. The problem with simple truths is that we may know them, but we seldom (if ever) practice them.  The power of Zen is that coming to these simple truths while zazen presents them to me in a way that is personally meaningful. That, plus the process of sitting in zazen, tends to cement them a bit in my brain.  By sitting in zazen regularly, behavior and mindset can be controlled and even shaped. When I regularly meditate, I can feel that I have a far calmer, centered approach to everything.  I can also stand outside myself much more easily and control my mind, reactions, responses, thoughts...everything. And I am much more happy as a result.

Zen is ultimately about harnessing your mind, focusing it, and learning how to keep that focus constantly directed only on what is real and important. It's how to dismiss meaningless or pointless thoughts and concerns (the 'noise' that constitutes virtually all of what is going through our minds at any given time). When I'm practicing regularly, it's obvious to me that each of us is the author of virtually all of our pain, sorrows, frustrations, angst, and unhappiness. We create it in our own heads and make it worse through our resulting actions and words.

So I'm going to relate what I learned from the first koan (or case) in Mumonkan, one of the great old collections of Zen koans. A koan is a mental puzzle designed to guide you to truth or a realization, but it is not a puzzle with one solution and the koan is typically pretty obtuse - even nonsensical - when you read it.  The point is to get at the truth while in zazen, where it will have some impact.

Typically, I read the koan and then meditate. During meditation - and this is crucial - I am not thinking about the koan or trying to solve it. I am not 'meditating on the koan'; really to meditate on anything is almost a contradiction in terms! I think people who practice Zen say they are meditating on something merely to suggest that it's in therie head and that they are also meditating.  It's a very important difference. In meditation I'm not thinking about anything; I'm clearing my mind of all 'noise'. By doing this, I find that answers just come to me.

Over time, meditation reveals many answers or simple truths. These build off each other and intertwine and you slowly begin to build a cohesive way of being. Like I said, each realization tends to 'stick' when you find it through meditation, and then it's there waiting for you when you have additional realizations. So keep in mind that each session of zazen is not about 'Ah, now I am enlightened! I may now live my life full of wisdom and simplicity!" It's a process of learning and training your mind.

I'm still not sure posting this is a good idea, but I'm going to give it a try.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

First Bike Ride of 2010!

Jim and I rode 17 miles. Not exactly a trek, but we have to start somewhere and work up.  I've been working out again, although just once a week.  I've gone back to multiple exercises per body part and just doing one set at the highest weight I can handle wiht good form.  With that, plus making great progress in martial arts (I've got form 1 down, and most of the punches I need for my blue strip), I am officially a jock once again.

Who'd've thunk?

Sunday, May 16, 2010


This past Friday one of my very best friends, Paul, and I went out to dinner. Paul and I were partnered for about two years back when we were in our early/mid twenties. He was a straight-laced recovering Catholic and I was a street urchin poet and newly born professional.  We broke up over the movie Schindler's List (not related to the subject matter of the movie, because I have never seen it), which is another story altogether!  We continued as friends and roommates for another couple years, and then as friends ever since. So he knows me really, REALLY well (and vice versa).

One of the best things about Paul is that I can always have a great conversation with him. We caught up what is going on in our lives, of course, doing that meant we quickly veered into the world of ideas: literature, politics, movies, ideas we've read about that we thought the other might find interesting, etc. Conversations like this recharge my batteries in so many ways! So much of our day-to-day life is mundane and usual, which is inescapable I suppose, so it's great to be able to flex my brain a bit every now and then and talk about things that matter and make inside jokes with someone (cats do have feelings!).

Paul and I have both changed and grown in so many ways since we met way back when, and it's been a wonderful ride so far.  We've taught each other so much and, I think, have really influenced each other in many ways.  Love ya, Paulie!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

New Music!

Some new music purchases filtering into my ears and providing me sonic enjoyment:

Various Artists - Six Degrees Global Groove Sampler This one was free for download on amazon! What a deal! It includes work by Malian blues guitarist Vieux Farka Touré (son of Ali!), American duo Undersea Poem, French-Finnish duo The Dø, Zuco 103, Gaudi (the track is 'No Time', one of my favorites of 2010), David Starfire, Midival Punditz, Lal Meri (another collective featuring the indispensable Carmen Rizzo), and others. This is the perfect example of why free music is wonderful and why 'illegal' downloads of music shouldn't worry real musicians. I would not likely have gotten a good listen to many of these bands without a free earful. I am planning on buying Gaudi's album, and I imagine one or two more of these will also be purchased before long. Very good stuff!

Kero One - Early Believers Positive hip-hop producer and MC from San Francisco, who has a very chill, old-school, true skool feel to his stuff. This is his second album, and he came up completely outside the major labels.

Erykah Badu - New Amerykah, Part Two: Return of the Ankh The second part of her trilogy of New Amerykah albums. The first one (4th World War) took some time to grow on me but, when I got it, I loved it! This one sounds like it might be a little less out there, but I'm glad Badu is back in my playlist. It's been awhile since I was getting off on her debut (Baduizm). 

Triptykon - Eparistera Daimones Black metal band Celtic Frost broke up again two years ago after the release of their phenomenal album Monotheist. This is the new band by Tom Gabriel Warrior. From the samples I heard before I purchased and the cuts I heard on YouTube, sounds like it'll be another mind-shattering trip through the valley of darkness. I can't wait!

BT - These Hopeful Machines One thing I like about producer/composer/technologist BT is he never puts out CDs that seem like he's only being half-hearted. Everything he records is epic and/or I can tell he's passionate about it, even if I sometimes dislike the direction he takes (Emotional Technology) This is probably his most ambitious work since his classic trancy/ambient debut ima, which completely rocked my world in terms of music.  These Hopeful Machines is 2 CDs and two hours of music. I'm expecting it to be quite an aural journey.

Various Artists - Riverside Scenes on a Bright Day Traditional Chinese music by artists such as guqin player Li Xiangting (whose Sleeping Lotus album is a favorite of mine for meditation and quiet times), Cui Junzhi, Zhang Weiliang, Song Baocai and others. Some serene and/or spartan arrangements for the most part using a variety of instruments.

Gotta go listen!

Sunday, May 9, 2010


My dear friend John Heaton posted the following entry on his facebook wall:

"I am not sure what to make of the Austen culture. It boggles the mind that there is such a huge demand for Austen pastiches. The Republic of Pemberly has a list of more than sixty, which doesn't include any of the forty such books published by Sourcebooks, Inc."

I understand completely why Austen's novels excite such enthusiasm among contemporary readers (including this one!). As I make my points, you'll notice an unfortunate tendency to compare Austen to Victorian writers, which I probably shouldn't do since she died before that period began and she likely had little in common with them from a literary standpoint. I apologize in advance.

First, the rules of the world Austen paints are so different from our own and, importantly, they differ in a way that appeals to us to some extent. In our time etiquette is dead, a promise excites as much cynicism as faith, and many people function with no - or only a self-serving - moral code. Not saying I prefer the social structure of rural England during the late 1700s, but there is a simplicity and decency in the mores and customs Austen depicts that is sadly absent in our own culture. I believe this simplicity and decency appeals to us, no matter how post-modern we imagine ourselves to be.

This leads to my second point which is something the great novelist of the time, Sir Walter Scott, praised about Austen: her realism. Austen's realism was about painting a picture of the world 'as it is' and without an agenda. I believe this is why her books have such a straightforward and approachable tone. They are what they are, and the themes she explores flow naturally from the plot. Moving forward into the Victorian period, the theme started to take on so much importance that it often seemed to dictate plotting and characterization rather than working in tandem with these tools. In the hands of the next generation of British writers (Dickens, Gaskell, Eliot, etc.) realism became a means of pushing social and economic change. Moving into our own time - 'realism' seems to exile the concept of heroes and villains, good and evil. Everyone is a self-doubting, self-absorbed, and/or morally ambiguous/confused 'grey'. This trend strongly colors quite a bit of our literature, comics, movies, and culture, but I'm not sure how 'real' it is. In my opinion, it has become so de rigueur as to be predictable and tedious.

Third, while Austen is firmly entrenched in the 1800s, she has an extraordinarily contemporary wit. She writes her characters as flawed human beings and describes them and the situations they find themselves in with great candor and a sometimes catty sense of humor. In comparison, Dickens, Eliot, and Gaskell take themselves very seriously. Their agendas are laid on in a deadly serious, pedantic tone along with a heavy-handed dose of religion. It's usually very preachy, sometimes condescending, and often a bit 'much'. Austen, on the other hand, is focused on individual people, not masses of people, not social constructs. Her focus appeals to us because it's easier to relate to her characters and what they mean. And it's also a lot more enjoyable to read. The criticism would probably be that Austen's realism ends where her natural optimism begins, and there's some truth to this. However, I would argue that there's nothing inherently wrong with a novel or writer that is optimistic and that there is nothing inherently superior (or more realistic) about a novel that is dark and nihilistic.

Fourth, the pacing of Austen's novels is impeccable. No Victorian writer is so economical as Austen. As an author, her intrusions into the narrative are tasteful and well-woven into the fabric of her story, while writers such as Dickens and Gaskell leap completely out of the story to orate upon some issue or other. This is, in fact, a very bad flaw from a literary perspective. That Austen avoids it far more than her peers immediately makes her novels more readable and - on this point - infinitely superior to other big names from the 1800s. I'm not sure there's another novelist of the century whose proportion of plot and page is as well-balanced as Austen's. That's a massive strength as a writer.

Lastly, one cannot question the dramatic power of her novels or the richness of the characters. They seem like real people we know, despite the temporal issue, and their concerns become ours because we become emotionally involved and just plain like them. In contrast, authors like Dickens many times use characters merely as mouthpieces for specific moral or social positions. These characters can be colorful, but they are actually rather two-dimensional and predictable. Then there is the modern approach used in the movies and novels of today, where we do not relate to the characters and often do not like them. While this is sometimes done purposefully to make a thematic point, it is usually nothing more than emulating the current cultural tone. Regardless of why it is done, the effect is the same; it generally makes the characters and their conflicts less relevant (and sometimes irrelevant) to the reader. We are always watching from behind the glass, safe in the knowledge that we have no real emotional stake in what happens. We are not truly drawn in. Not so in Austen.

These are the points I thought of off the top of my head, and I'm probably not even making them all that well in this quickie blog entry. To be honest, I have only read half of Austen's novels. I still need to tackle Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. I must admit I have bought into Austenmania (I own several DVDs of BBC and Hollywood productions based on her novels).  I am quite a fan of her work, which is rather surprising since I generally dislike 19th Century British novels, even when I can admire the style or talent of a particular writer. Say what we will about Austen, she has certainly endured. And that is ultimately the key litmus test for great literature.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Back onto a regular hapkido schedule. There's a 4:30 class that I can make if I get into work early enough to leave at 4. It's much better going directly after work, and I can be sure I have had enough food at lunch to keep my energy up. The downside is the earlier class has a higher proportion of kids, which makes the dynamic a little less serious. However, the instructor is very good, and she gets guidance from the Master before each class.  I've been learning a lot of new stuff: forms, punches, escapes. Very fun and very demanding!

In an earlier post, I described how we learn to fall or be thrown when someone is practicing throws on us. It's important to 'fall right' so that being thrown doesn't hurt you, and that also is a good skill for an actual fight because being thrown can totally knock the wind and the fight out of you. Naturally, 'falling right' requires being focused and paying attention to what you and your partner are doing.

I was practicing throws with a black belt and, for some reason, I wasn't quite as focused as I should have been. In addition, the black belt was a little more 'enthusiastic' with this particular throw than usual. Bad combination. He threw me hard, and I wasn't in control of my fall at all. I went over his shoulder and slammed onto the mat on my shoulder and neck and back.  I could hear the Master run over and scold the black belt: "Gentle! Gentle!" I, of course, didn't betray anything. I got right up onto my feet again to show I was ready for more. The black belt was totally apologetic, but I knew it was partially my own fault.

I paid the price over the next few days. My neck was so stiff and it felt like there were a thousand tiny knots tied in the fibers of my back muscles. It ached bad! Hopefully, it's a lesson learned and I'll never make that mistake again!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Concrete Poetry

Many, many years ago I was exposed to the work of poet Pedro Xisto. His genre is concrete poetry, which can sometimes rise to a marriage between art and poetry.  As in this piece of his, titled Ephitalamiun. It's my favorite piece by him, and I have always remembered it from when I first encountered back in college.  I just found it while trawling for him on the web the other day. Hope you enjoy!

PS: Make sure to click and enlarge the 'key' on the bottom of the image is critical to interpreting the is the meaning of the title.

Monday, May 3, 2010


I've always loved reading, and over the last ten years or so I have enjoyed finding nice hardcover versions of my favorite books. I'd also begun looking through the nicer used book stores for interesting and unique editions. For example, I bought an old hardcover version of Irving Stone's The Agony And The Ecstasy that has a slipcase and, in the book itself, plates of Michelangelo's artwork relevant to the story. I love finding these kinds of loving treatments of a great book.

Of course I'm no collector, as in knowing too much about how to spot a 'find'. I don't know what 'foxing' is, and I'm not sure what to look for beyond what interests me personally and the publication date.  But I've purchased some old hardcover editions I like: a hardcover of Pan Michal, a book of poems by William Cullen Bryant printed in the 1800s, and - just recently - a boxed set containing the first three Horatio Hornblower novels. This hardcover set was printed, I believe, within two years of the first editions, with a slipcase and frontpiece illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Seemed like a nice purchase, and it only set me back $31 on eBay.

As time has gone on, I have become more interested in possibly becoming a more educated book collector. Maybe this casual interest will lead to something later in life?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Rebel

At least according to the DVD case, this 2007 film is the highest grossing film in Vietnamese history. It's easy to understand why. The Rebel takes place in 1922 during the French occupation of Vietnam and clearly speaks to nationalistic themes that probably resonated for many people in Vietnam. Plus it's a beautifully shot film with great action sequences and awesome martial arts fighting courtesy of star Johnny Tri Nguyen (who played a villain in Tony Jaa's The Protector).

Nguyen, a martial arts expert and stunt double, also helped write and direct the movie. So this was clearly a labor of love for him.  His fight scenes are really strong, and there's no indication of any 'wire-fu'; these fights are real and gritty. In case you doubt it, one of the extras shows Nguyen demonstrating some the more impressive kicks and take-downs in 'real life'. Another plus (I have to admit) is that Nguyen is a very handsome man, as well as a terrific athlete, so there's some definite eye candy as well. In one scene Nguyen fights with his shirt off, muscles rippling all over the place. Very impressive.

The only critical comment I could make about The Rebel is that the pacing is a little off. The first third of the film moves very quickly, but then there are some slow scenes until the finale. It's not that they are boring or that the movie can't hold your interest, it's just these scenes come off as notably slow versus the rest of the movie.  Other than that, this is a well-shot and performed martial arts movie with a great story at it's core. Recommended!