Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Party Pics

My friend from work Cindy and her husband Kyle hosted a great Halloween party. Got these pics from her today. Was a fun time as you can see. PS: I'll post pics of me and Jim's pumpkins as soon as I can get them off my phone.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A New Novel?

I hesitate to post this, because I find that announcing new creative ventures tends to destroy all the internal tension needed to keep them growing. However, I feel pretty good about this. Just feel like something's a-brewin' inside of me. Perhaps it's the fall weather which I posted about endlessly last year as being a potent creative spark.

I've begun work on what I think will be a new novel! It's a horror novel, a genre I've never attempted even in short story form. I don't have any kind of leitmotif (i.e., 'ax to grind') with this one the way I did with my first novel (the hideously and, mercifully, unfinished 'Skyscraper') or my second novel (a military sci-fi/space opera called 'Chrysalis of Fire' that I have up for sale on Kindle).  This time, I'm approaching it in a much more straightforward plot-driven kind of way. I'm going for something classic, a creepy, atmospheric tale of terror filled with dark dread, something to read late at night in the dark.

I've only written 10 pages, so it's still way too early to know whether the dough is going to rise or if it'll just collapse into a sticky mess. But I have a rough outline for the plot and an idea of the backstory behind the evil that will erupt upon a small Midwestern town. Most importantly, I've enjoyed re-engaging in the creative process itself, which is something I've missed for some time now.

We'll see where it goes. Perhaps, as was the case when I posted about starting again with martial arts, posting this will make me feel an obligation to follow through and make it happen.  If I get further into it, I'll post a little something about the potential plot and share the working title.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

At Last! My Blue Stripe!

Fate has not been with me in getting to rank tests lately. Business trips, sinus infections, vacations, something was always taking priority. This time I was just starting a new bunch of drugs to finally kill this sinus infection, and they were keeping me from sleeping. However, I refused to miss this test!

I got through it and, while I won't receive my strip until next week, the fact is that you are not asked to test until the Master thinks you are ready to move up. So unless you are a complete screw-up, by the time you are asked to test you have little chance of not passing. So I am now a green belt with a blue stripe!

I've already started work on Form #2, which is one of the things you do to move to a full-on blue belt. So if I can really stay committed, limit my time at work, and keep a balance in life, I should be able to go to class regularly once again. The next rank test is December 17th. Perhaps I should set a personal goal of going to class often enough so that I can try to be ready to test for my blue belt?

On a side note, I wasn't as nervous at this test as I have been at prior tests. Not sure if that's a function of being messed up on antibiotics, a steroid, and Mucinex-D or - more hopefully - maybe I'm not getting so worked up about these tests anymore. I hope it's the latter. Anyway, I'm so proud I've come this far, and I'm really enjoying it!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Mumonkan, Koan 7: Joshu's 'Wash Your Bowl'

A monk said to Joshu, "I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me." "Have you eaten your rice porridge?" asked Joshu. "Yes, I have," replied the monk. "Then you had better wash your bowl," said Joshu. With this the monk gained insight.

My interpretation differs from the one given by the translator. I think Joshu is saying that 'teaching' or 'learning' can occur in your everyday life, even when doing the most mundane activities if your focus is right and your mind is disciplined. I believe one of the goals of sitting in zazen and practicing Zen is to carry the mindset you reach during satori into your everyday existence. You are truly enlightened when that mindset is your constant state of existence.

In short, Joshu is saying: be in the moment and learning will come.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sunset, Moon, and Venus

I forgot to share this picture I took in Panama City Beach of the sunset. Click on it to make it bigger and you will also be able to see the Moon and Venus in the upper left! Kind of a celestial gathering at the end of the day.  Also have a picture of me and Jim during the same sunset, relaxing on the terrace.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Barracudas

The Barracudas is the name of my team in the gay bowling league Jim and I belong to. We've been going for quite a few years. It's only once a month so it doesn't get to be too much of a commitment but, on the down side, it's hard to build momentum in your game bowling when bowling so infrequently.

In any case, I think that might no longer be true. First game of the season saw my average go up to 125 (yes, I know, you're thinking: "why would he advertise that in his blog?"). Last night, I bowled within a few points of my average in all three games. The big deal about all of this is that my main problem as a bowler is consistency. I'll mark for several frames in a row and then get a pin or two on a few 'at bats' over the next several frames.

I still had some messed up frames, but I definitely 'feel it' more when I'm bowling and that's helping me do better overall. We took 5 of 7 points last month, and I'm positive we nabbed all 7 last night. If we're not in first place in our division, then we'll definitely be second!

Jim had one 200+ game last night, which certainly didn't hurt. Really the whole team did well. Plus we won the drawing for a round of free drinks! Mr. Jack helps me bowl better.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Emile Zola - 'Money'

For those of you new to Zen Thrown Down, my latest reading project is the twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle by 19th Century French realist Emile Zola. As I finish each book, I'm posting a review on the blog. Money is the fourth novel in the Rougon-Macquart cycle (counting in the order Zola wished them to be read), and it picks up the story of Aristide Saccard some years after Zola's prior novel, The Kill. Saccard is seeking to rebuild his fortunes through a legitimate concern called the Universal Bank. However, his true nature soon emerges.

As a novel about investment fraud and corporate irresponsibility, Money is amazingly topical for today. While the novel is set in France during the Second Empire period (circa 1860), it takes no imagination at all to read it as a dissection of the psychology behind the Enron scandal and the banking crisis that recently sent the planet's economy into a tailspin. One thing made clear by Money is that the financial sector has not changed an iota from Zola's time and the same crimes are (and will be) committed over and over without any effort to curb them. The parallels to our time are so plentiful that it's hard sometimes to believe this novel was written over a hundred years ago. The crash that occurs as a result of Saccard's chicanery bankrupts and destroys thousands of everyday people while the perpetrators of the scam get a slap on the wrist and walk away wealthy, exactly the way these scandals have played out in recent years.

Anyway, to focus on the novel. The plotting is fairly strong and the characterization is solid. Saccard is the Rougon-Macquart character dealt with in the novel. However, we also see Maxime again, are introduced to Saccard's illegitimate and criminal son Victor, while Eugene Rougon plays a role in the background. While Zola introduces a vast panorama of characters, as in The Kill many of them are little more than names and functions. He also uses quite a bit of exposition rather than dialogue to drive the plot, which can slow down the pacing at times. Even so, I loved the detailed, inside view of the French stock exchange (the Bourse): from the wunderkinds of finance (Gundermann) to the upstart frauds (Saccard and his pals), from the financial types whose morals go gray to the common people mad with the idea of making fortunes like the day-traders of recent years, from the crooked journalists paid to publish PR for Saccard's bank under the guise of objective reporting to the vultures and bottom feeders ready to pounce and devour any money the victims of the crash manage to hold onto. All in all, it's a fascinating glimpse into the past while clearly showing us the present!

A master of the Realist school, Zola nevertheless draws some conclusions about humanity and society from his tale. That he does this without becoming sanctimonious or obvious (as with Dickens and many English realists) is a credit to his talents as a writer. Of course, Zola's observations are hardly the stuff to make his bleak novel do down any easier. By comparing Saccard and his 'greed is good' view of the financial world with Sigismond's Marxist castles in the sky, Zola seems to paint both views as lunatic. Nor does he allow us to blame capitalism for the crash and destruction, because through the character of Caroline we see both the good and the evil Saccard has wrought. The cold, hard truth Zola seems to drive at in the final pages of Money is that such crashes and human predation are part and parcel of life. Human nature makes such destruction a requirement for progress. This is a very bleak view of humanity and society and, while one would like to refute it, the fact that 100 years later the same crimes are being committed suggests Zola's cynical view of humanity is more accurate than is comfortable for fans of 'the human spirit'.

A fascinating read!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Me Teaching Children?

In general, I avoid children. I find most of them to be poorly raised, over-medicated, messy, and rather silly. So how odd is it that I actually enjoyed teaching children in hapkido class today? Very odd, I say, but there you have it!

How did this happen? Well, in short, I was ambushed. I went to hapkido class and out of the blue the black belt who was leading the class turned to me and said: "Get a target and train the white belts on kicks." I was stunned! I'd never been asked to do something like that before, and I had figured I was a few belts away from that. But of course you don't don't say no when a senior belt asks you to do something like that. So off I went. Next thing I know I was ordering the white belts (a group predominantly composed of five or six kids under the age of ten) to line up and telling them what kicks to do.

And you know what? It was a lot of fun...and very rewarding! I suddenly had this weird nurturing/protective feeling come over me. I wanted them to learn, get better, have fun, and feel good about themselves. Not that I goofed off; I did correct them if they needed it. But I cracked jokes to make them laugh and heard myself saying all sorts of encouraging things to them, and they responded with this very happy glow that only children can give off. (I cannot believe I'm writing this, by the way).

How strange and unexpected. I never thought this was something I could do even remotely well, and the fact that I did it and actually enjoyed it is just a total shock to me.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

272 miles!

Did another 20 today with the fall color just getting underway. God, it would be great if we could at least make it to 300! Strange thing is that even with the fall sunlight, the trees turning colors, and Halloween coming up it still doesn't feel like autumn yet.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

'Zen Training' by Katsuki Sekida

My translation of Mumonkan was done by Katsuki Sekida, and both his translation and his commentary in the volume (which also includes his translation of Hekiganroku, more commonly known as The Blue Cliff Records) was so thoughtful that I was led to check out what else he may have written. In doing so, I came across this book and bought it.

Buying it was very out of character for me because, as I've probably noted in this blog somewhere, I avoid modern texts on Zen. I find too many of them to be recycled hippy-isms, thinly veiled New Age delusions masquerading as Zen, or meaningless ramblings written by frauds to whom Zen is big business. I believe Zen is practiced by doing zazen, pure and simple, so in my opinion reading books, going to retreats, being a vegetarian, etc. is all just 'window dressing'. 
As a result, I've kept my Zen reading to minimum. That's been tough, because when I get 'into' something I'm typically a voracious reader on the subject. But in the case, I've sternly restrained myself. I have the koan collections mentioned above, a slender volume of works attributed to Bodhidharma, some haiku by Basho, and a few translations of ancient texts. That's about it! Not saying my way is the best way or anything, but I'm setting the stage for how hard it would be for a modern book to cut through my formidable mental alarm systems and cynicism (but it's not cynicism if it's true, right?!).
Simply put, this book is amazing! Many things I've learned through zazen are woven into this text, so it's clearly an authentic person writing a legitimate treatise on Zen. Some key terms mentioned in Zen texts are described in a very straightforward manner. While I haven't yet appreciated the hardcore physiological passages on breathing, the focus on the tanden is dead on. Interestingly, this focus mirrors what I have always been instructed to do in my martial arts training.
For anyone reading this that is thinking about trying Zen out, I would not recommend this book to you (not at first). A person new to Zen might inadvertently use the text as a 'how to' manual or adopt its content with a dogmatic attitude, neither of which was the author's intent (or would move your work in Zen in the right direction). Rather, I think it's best to read it after spending some time in zazen and figuring things out for yourself. After you have some experience, this book would then have a positive impact.
For me, Zen Training has provided some valuable guidance and compiled many key concepts I have found to be important into a single volume. While this doesn't make me interested in checking out additional modern works, I'm certainly thrilled to be proven wrong about my blanket dismissal of modern Zen texts. This is a very thoughtfully written book by someone who clearly has spent a great deal of time practicing Zen.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Snorkeling Panama City Beach

During our vacation in Panama City Beach we went snorkeling and saw a bunch of amazing stuff, some of which I have not experienced ever!

One of the first things we saw were several kinds of jellyfish. A cannonball jelly that was midway between the size of a softball and a basketball. A sea nettle with long white tentacles draping out behind it, probably pretty nasty stings on them too.  The most beautiful however was what is pictured here (thanks to whoever snapped this and posted on the web - click to make it bigger). I've never seen a jellyfish with bioluminescence like this. There were a couple just floating around with every color of the rainbow flowing through these veins of color like fiber optics.

Of course, there were also plenty of the usual colorful reef fish. The largest fish I saw was a critter that was like an angelfish but had less dramatic fins. It looked a little bit like this guy pictured here (click to make it larger). He was easily a foot and a half long and tall, with dark green and bluish coloring (I think). He had a bunch of little fish hanging around him as he plucked algae off the rocks, and he seemed completely unperturbed by me being so close to him. Also got to see some small stingrays in the shallows.

The most amazing part was that there were these huge schools of bait fish swimming in about eight feet of water.  I was swam amid them and then they just were all around me! Like a hurricane of fish, and I was in the eye.  They were about two or three inches long, transparent, and each had a neon blue strip inside of them. Sorry, but I couldn't find a pic of them on the web to post here.

Anyway, there were literally thousands of these little fish! They were so thick and the school was so big that I couldn't see the seafloor beneath me, nor could I see through them in any direction. As long as I floated and didn't kick the surface of the water, we just swam along together.  It was like I was part of the school! Amazing!

Of course my mischievous side took over and I let my fins kick at the surface to create a disturbance as I darted forward into the thick of them.  They immediately begun swirling around me like a real hurricane but of fish not winds.  They also started jumping, and I could feel them skipping across my back and legs as they darted around me to escape. Weirdest of all, As I swam forward and kept near the surface I could see that some were apparently leaping out of the water. Because ahead of me I could see fish dropping into the water as if it were raining neon blue fish.

I so LOVE the ocean!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Mumonkan, Koan 6: 'The Buddha Holds Out A Flower'

When Shakyamuni Buddha was at Mount Grdhrakuta, he held out a flower to his listeners. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakashyapa broke into a broad smile. The Buddha said, "I have the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate, independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine. This I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa."

I was quite happy that I was able to interpret this koan rather quickly. It's about the transmission of Zen, and how this has to be something through personal experience and not something that is conveyed by teachings. This is what is meant by the words "independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine". Words cannot convey Zen understanding to another person; they must find it and experience it for themselves. So, in truth, the Buddha didn't entrust anything to Mahakashyapa. Mahakashyapa perceived it on his own. This is how Zen Buddhism is "passed on". (By the way the photo here is a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha in Taiwan. It's the largest seated Buddha statue in the world).

While meditating, I had my candle lit as always. Although I had some trouble quieting my mind, I did have an experience of kensho. I've massaged it a little to create my own koan.  See what you think!

Peter was asked if burning a candle while sitting in zazen helps him attain samadhi. He replied: "A candle doesn't burn to reach the end of its wick; it reaches the end of its wick because it burns."