Monday, May 30, 2011

First Bike Ride of 2011...and Llamas

Jim and I were finally able to do our first bike ride of the season...the weather has been rainy and/or too cold forever. We had to get out early though because it's supposed to get into the 90s this afternoon and be windy. Doing your first ride of the year under those conditions would not be fun. As it was, all the rain had left the trails pretty muddy and full of gullies and puddles. So we got really dirty.

We went 17 miles, which is generally not stellar but pretty decent for a first ride of the season. Contrary to what I had thought would be the case, my legs did not seem better able to do the ride because of all my treadmill work. Really didn't seem to make much difference; perhaps it's different muscles being worked out?

There was a really cool bonus this ride (we often seem to have little 'moments' on the bike trails). This time, as we were riding along, we came upon a woman who was walking her two...llamas. Yeah, llamas! We stopped and I got to pet them (Jim wouldn't touch them).  One was the color of this guy pictured here, and the other was white. They stood about 6 feet tall, and their fur was very thick and soft. It was weird to see their feet too, which have two big toes and that's it. They were tame and quite used to people.

Nice way to kick off the biking season!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mumonkan, Koan 16: When The Bell Tolls

Ummon said, "The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?"

I think the bell represents something near to us - as opposed to everything else going on in the world - that we invest with importance and hence get dressed up for (i.e., I'm assuming the seven-piece robe refers to putting on your best clothes). We tend to allow ourselves to respond to things close to us based on customs or how we 'should' respond and treat them as if they are all important versus despite how meaningless it might be in the grand scheme of things.

In a way, this perspective skews our view of reality. It is unlikely that the bell being rung really signifies anything of relevance from a world wide view, so why do we assign such importance to it? There are certainly reasons why we might do this, but we should keep the larger view in mind or we could complicate our ability to see clearly.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Stevie Nicks - In Your Dreams

In 1973, Stevie Nicks began her career as a recording artist with the album Buckingham Nicks. That album bombed so badly, she was dropped by her label. What a far cry from her first solo album (Bella Donna) eight years later. Bella Donna hit number one, unleashed four top 40 hits, and launched her to a level of stardom reached by few rock artists: she was a member of one of rock's biggest bands and she also had a hugely successful solo career.

It's been 30 years since Bella Donna established Nicks as a force to be reckoned with in or out of Fleetwood Mac and, over the ten years since her last studio album, she seemed to be headed towards a kind of retirement: touring and releasing compilation packages. If In Your Dreams turns out to be the capstone of her career, then she's going out on a very high note. However, the album is so good that it suggests it would be a shame for Nicks to stop recording as she obviously has a lot of great music left in her. Simply put, In Your Dreams is her best album since The Wild Heart and it is the best solo effort of her career in terms of merging her mystical and rock sides.

Lyrically In Your Dreams is the most open album of Nicks' career, reminding us that Nicks is at her best when her moony mysticism and snaky incantations are married to sassy rock and roll attitude. This marriage is partly achieved by Dave Stewart's melodic and tight production. He rarely ventures into the meandering over-instrumentation that has haunted every Nicks solo album since The Wild Heart, yet he lets Nicks breath and indulge in the drama that has always formed the core of her allure. He clearly 'gets' what Stevie is all about and his production lets her be herself while deftly setting some boundaries to keep things rock and roll.

Nicks responds as she did when Jimmy Iovine pushed her this way: she gives tremendous, emotional performances. While there's no question that Nicks' voice isn't what it used to be, she seems to have accepted that her sultry vibrato is a thing of the past and is singing with what she has rather than trying to force what she used to have. I noticed this approach during her Soundstage performance as well. The result is Nicks sounds alive, energized, and happy throughout the disk, as if she's really into what she's doing and comfortable with it. In fact, I don't think she has sounded so utterly invested all the way through an album since...again, The Wild Heart.

Frankly (and I know I'm gushing now, but I've been a Stevie fan since Rumours came out when I was ten years old), In Your Dreams is the CD I have been wanting Nicks to do for decades. She's abandoned the over-production and layered instrumentation. The songs sound very direct and simple, yet the sound is still lush and full of sonic details that support the mood of the songs. As to a favorite song...sorry but I can't pick one. The songs all touch different emotions, and I love how Nicks alters her delivery for each of them. There's Nicks' always alluring overgrown romanticism ('Moonlight', 'Italian Summer'), hooky pop tunes ('Secret Love', 'New Orleans'), country twang ('For What It's Worth'), thoughtful ballads ('You May Be The One', 'Cheaper Than Free'), a dirge that verges on slowed down black metal ('Soldier's Angel'), an upbeat take on Edgar Allen Poe ('Annabel Lee'), and straight ahead rock (the title track). Even the to-be-expected loopy tracks ('Wide Sargasso Sea', 'Ghosts Are Gone') seem to work. That said, there is one song that suffers by comparison to the rest of the material: 'Everybody Loves You'. It just doesn't belong on this CD because it's clearly a Eurythmics song in need of Annie Lennox's icy cooing. Nicks hasn't got an icy note in her body, and it just sounds wrong.

As on Trouble in Shangri-La, most of the best songs are the ones Nicks writes on her own. So if I were to ding In Your Dreams, it would be for Nicks' continuing reluctance to step up the plate and write more of her own material. While I'm not crazy about her culling songs from her vaults, if she's got gems like 'Secret Love' and 'Annabel Lee' stored away, then I can't complain too much can I?

Bottom line: I have this CD in my car and just let it play over and over. I haven't given a Nicks' CD this kind of spin priority since Rock a Little. The quality and energy of this album will no doubt go down as one of the biggest surprises of the year. Nicks knocked this album out of the ballpark!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Haiku Thursdays

tended tirelessly
snapdragons fade
under the willow

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Back to Hapkido?......No

This was a tough decision. I'd made a lot of progress in hapkido, and I really enjoyed it. Plus, the fitness benefits were terrific. However, between going back to the gym and cycling weather upon us, it seemed like it would be too much of one thing to continue with martial arts too.

I've mentioned on this blog several times that I've been really focused on athletic stuff for a long time, and I guess it's time to make some conscious decisions to set aside time for other interests (like painting, writing, more time for meditation, hanging out with friends, reading, etc.).

I'm going to keep practicing my forms and kicks and punches as part of my routine at the gym. So while I may not be continuing with martial arts (right now), if I can keep the skills I have sharp then nothing has been lost at all.  Taking hapkido was a wonderful experience and I do miss it, but I know this is the right choice. I just don't feel it's very balanced to be so invested in fitness to the exclusion of other aspects of my life. So, instead of continuing to wring my hands about it, it's time to do something about it. Done.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Back to the Gym

I haven't belonged to a gym/health club/fitness center for something close to fifteen years. I always found them to be unwelcoming places with the stench of heterosexual meat market wafting in the air.  However, I was not able to push through my plateau with dumbbells at home, so I began missing those machines.  Plus there is a gym in my building at work...can't get more convenient than that!

I joined a gym about a month or two ago, and I have been really into it! Weirdest of all is that I have suddenly discovered the wonderful world of treadmills. I used to loathe treadmills and all their brethren (stairmasters, ellipticals, cycle machines, etc.) because I'm so used to biking outside that I could never deal with just being stationary while putting out all that energy. But for whatever reason I now enjoy my treadmill time!

If I can get off work early enough, I go down and do the treadmill while watching Judge Judy (I looove Judge Judy!). In the AM, I listen to all my old techno from the 90's: Superstar DJ Keoki, Juno Reactor, Crystal Method, Uberzone...and just go into a zone. It's almost like meditating in a way, because I clear my mind and just do it.

I'm up to about two or three times a week. 40 minutes a pop on the treadmill. And I alternate between two moderate lifting routines. I burn about 550 calories a shot on the treadmill, and I can already feel my body responding to the lifting. Now I just need to get to running on the treadmill. And maybe get a trainer for a week or two to set up a really nice lifting routine for myself. 

Who knows? By this time next year, I might even look like Mr. Yummy in this picture here. No? Well, a boy can dream right?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Back to Painting?

Years ago, I was way into painting. I took a bunch of college classes and built up a pretty good head of steam. I was painting somewhat large canvases (the one pictured  is 36x30), had placed my work in some shows, and even sold a a total stranger no less! I had gotten to a place where I was trying to merge the topics I was reading about in physics and biology texts into my art and naming them things that merged the art and science, as well. This piece was called 'Deep Sea Abstract Biogenesis'...or something like that.

I stopped painting pretty abruptly about the same time I stopped writing poetry. In general, there were a bunch of years where I simply didn't do anything creative anymore. Not entirely sure why that happened. I just didn't feel the urge to produce or communicate anything, and whenever I did try I had this feeling that the stuff I was creating was 'the same old same old'.

Over the past few week, however, I've had a return of what I can only call 'artist vision'. This is how it works: I'll be going along not thinking about anything when suddenly something very random and everyday that I see suggests a painting to me or a way to visually depict something through art. So this weekend I pulled my car out of the garage, fished my easel out of the crawl-space, took an inventory of my leftover supplies, picked up a few things I needed, made the garage into a studio, and started a canvas.

I have some ideas that I want to play with, but I veered away from them and instead did a quick sketch from my imagination of a bowl of avocados (don't ask's the color I'm after) with a Cubist sensibility to the composition. I decided to paint this 'still life' as a way to get back on the saddle. Of course, I quickly learned that it's not quite that easy. I laid down my first couple layers of color and then remembered there's that pesky need for the paint to dry or you end up mixing on the canvas with everything you add!  This was why, when I was real active, I would have two or three paintings going on at once. I'd always get started on the next ones as I finished the current project, so that while one picture was drying I would always have something else to do.

Anyway, the first layers are down.  Who knows where this will go.  I've a had a few false restarts of my creative process over the years, and this may be just another one of them. I hope that this coming weekend I can get back to it and start on the actual painting.  But no matter what, I really enjoyed the process of painting again: the loose brushstrokes, the smells, the look of the paint on my palette, mixing colors, and the way it flows on the canvas. I even used my palette knife to slather paint on, so no worries that I'll revert back to some really uptight process.  I even (almost) enjoyed the way I somehow end up with every color I use on my fingers. I had fun!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Do Zen Buddhists Believe in God? (Part 2)

My friend Paul has been asking me questions about my recent post Do Zen Buddhists Believe In God? Here was his latest question:

"The four noble truths of Buddhism is all about suffering. The Zen tradition follows from that? What is the purpose of Zen then? Why do it? Follow it? I'm having a hard time grasping the null response to god/religion concept. Sure, saying that god is the #1 serial killer of all time is overblown but surely you have to admit that religious belief does cause real harm and actual death to people. What would the Zen response be to murder? War? Falsehoods? Surely they would have the same response to religion?"

This question provoked a ton of thought from me, so I wanted to post the result of this thinking.....

First of all, I know very little about Buddhism. The Zen tradition flows from it, but my sense is Buddhism is much more complicated. There's all that 'four noble truths' and 'nine directions' and 'five worlds' and 'three hells' stuff, and I'd be willing to bet part of the origin of Zen was a rejection of this complexity.  Second, you do not practice Zen for a reason. By practicing it, you experience reality directly, discipline your mind, understand truth, and ultimately may become enlightened. However, there is no goal, 'finish line', or set of rules. Last, since Zen is first and foremost a personal experience, I doubt there is a 'Zen' response to anything (including murder, war, or falsehood). Speaking for myself, here's my stab at what I believe about these subjects from a 'Zen perspective'.

Falsehood (i.e., lying).
Lying that springs from delusion (e.g., you are pretending to be something you are not) is wrong because it necessarily takes you from the path. Beyond this, neither honesty nor lying are good or bad in and of themselves. Example: Your mother just got her hair done for a big party. She loves it and asks you how it looks. You think it's awful. Is it right to be honest or to lie?

The answer depends on the facts. If her hair is truly embarrassing and hideous and she'll make a fool of herself at the party, then you should tell her just enough truth so she gets the point without being hurt. As such, it would not be right to be totally honest and tell her she looks awful (even if it's true) and list out all the reasons why. On the other hand, if it's just your personal opinion that she looks bad and telling her this will achieve nothing more than to hurt her feelings, then it would not be compassionate to do so. This does not mean you actively lie and say she looks twenty years younger or anything like that. You answer the question so as not to hurt her, while speaking as little untruth as possible. On the other hand, some friends value you because you will give them the 'unvarnished truth no matter what'. In this case, lying - even to spare their feelings - is not compassionate and is wrong. Given all this, you see that neither honesty nor lying can always be right or wrong.

If a child hits me, I do not hit back. If an adult hits me to get past me and kill my child, I would without hesitation hit the adult back and if necessary kill them to protect my child's life. If a country does another country wrong but there is no harm, invading that country is senseless. If a country invades yours or threatens to (and is able to) destroy yours, defending yourself is necessary. Now defense can take many forms, not just overt war.

Using war when it is not the best means of self-defense is wrong. Avoiding war when it is the best means of self-defense is also wrong. Engaging in a war you cannot win is wrong (or more precisely stupid). Using a quick invasion to destroy a dangerous enemy who has attacked you is good (or more precisely intelligent). Given all this, you see that self-defense can be good or bad depending on the situation. Naturally, war is always tragic because it leads to so much death and destruction. That is why war, violence, fighting it is not the first thing a person should leap to.

God/no god
Believers do not accept science as valid proof and non-believers do not accept faith as valid proof, so this debate cannot be settled beyond yourself. For me, I do not believe in god(s), but it's certainly possible I could be wrong. However, Zen Buddhist considers fretting over a question that cannot really be solved as cluttering your mind. It's delusion that just takes your from the path and solves nothing. Frankly, I think my realization that this question is irrelevant (and then clearing my mind of any quibbling around it) has propelled me forward tremendously. So you see that the existence of god is not an essential question for a Zen Buddhist to answer.

Now some people say make a second point that - even if you can't prove there is no god - that religious belief is bad because it has led to the murder of millions of people over the centuries (and other bad stuff). Therefore, we should root it out. While I most certainly believe that for many people religion becomes a delusion that keeps them from reality (and this delusion is what leads to the negative outcomes of religious belief),

I also often wonder if when religious people pray and say that god speaks to them whether they are in a form of zazen (albeit an inconsistent and not very disciplined form of it). Further, there are many people who engage in acts of kindness and generosity every day largely (and sometimes solely) because they are spurred by their religious beliefs. Religion can be a force for good or evil depending on the person, but I will say I believe people who become wrapped up in a religious belief are more likely to suffer from delusion and therefore act in negative ways because they become invested in preserving their delusions so they can avoid thinking deeply about themselves or their lives.

This was an interesting thought exercise because it made me think about how Zen gets you away from a dualistic view of the world. At bottom, demonizing religion or money or power or war is like blaming handguns for the murders people commit. It's blaming something other than ourselves for our failings. Zen Buddhism suggests to get past all that wrong thinking by getting in the moment through zazen and disciplining your mind. Truth and clarity come on their own without effort when you do this.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The World Ends Tomorrow

Of course all these people are crackpots, and I'm generally annoyed by wanton absurdity. However, I was thinking today that maybe we ought to look at all these recurring 'end of days' predictions as a reminder that we should live life so that - should one of them turn out to be true - that we'll be okay with it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Haiku Thursdays

spring storm passes
bone dry rain barrels
dewy violets

Friday, May 13, 2011

Haiku Thursdays

No, it's not Thursday. But it's been a while!

a spider weaves
in the gusting wind
when will I stop

Mumonkan, Koan 15: Tozan's Sixty Blows

Zen Master Ummon
Tozan came to study with Ummon.
Ummon asked, "Where are you from?" 
"From Sato," Tozan replied.
"Where were you during the summer?" 
"Well, I was at the monastery of Hozu, south of the lake." 
"When did you leave there?" Ummon asked. 
"On August 25" was Tozan's reply. 
"I spare you sixty blows," Ummon said.

The next day Tozan came to Ummon and said, "Yesterday you said you spared me sixty blows. I beg to ask you, where was I at fault?" 
"Oh, you rice bag!" shouted Ummon.  "What makes you wander about, now west of the river, now south of the lake?" 

Tozan thereupon came to a mighty enlightenment experience.

Fundamentally speaking, Tozan never should have left Sato.  Seeking outside is wrong thinking. Sit in zazen anywhere. You have everything you need inside you, simply silence your thoughts.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mumonkan, Koan 14: Nansen Cuts The Cat In Two

Zen Master Joshu
Nansen Osho saw monks of the Eastern and Western halls quarreling over a cat. He held up the cat and said, "If you can give an answer, you will save the cat. If not, I will kill it." No one could answer, and Nansen cut the cat in two.
That evening Joshu returned, and Nansen told him of the incident. Joshu took off his sandal, placed it on his head, and walked out. "If you had been there, you would have saved the cat," Nansen remarked.

Absurdity. Monks arguing over a cat is absurdity. No one could give an answer because the situation was absurd. Joshu meant this when he walked out with a sandal on his head.

This reminds me of a story someone I knew once told me about their final exam in an college Eastern Philosophy class. The final was a single essay question: "Explain a man standing on his head with a hat on each foot." Everyone in the class bent over their paper, furiously writing paragraphs. My friend wrote one sentence and, before the stunned class, walked up and turned in his paper. The professor read it, smiled, and declared that he had an "A". What did my friend write? "Explain a pregnant cow perched on a flagpole."

Absurdity and delusion cannot be explained and no 'answer' can be given about them. Don't waste your time.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Do Zen Buddhists Believe in God?

Whether I believe in god or not is an interesting question to be asked. I think the most accurate answer would be: "I don't care."

As a Zen Buddhist, I can believe in a god if I want...or not. Since it shouldn't make any difference, it's not a question I should spend any mental energy trying to resolve.

From a personal standpoint, I have been an atheist most of my life. However, my study of Zen Buddhism has taught me to feel most comfortable saying I don't know whether there is a god or not. And, further, that I do not accept that this is an important question to answer.

What I can say with some conviction is that focusing on the concept of god could be a source of delusion. A distraction, if you will. Instead of experiencing reality directly, I might be taking a 'shortcut' to truth based on what a book, preacher, or 'god' tells me. From a Zen perspective, this would be thoughtless. So belief in god could be harmful if it becomes an influential part of one's view of reality.

Zen Buddhism is not a deistic religion out to worship something; it's about disciplining the mind and experiencing truth. Since no one needs a god to do this, I would argue that Zen Buddhists must ultimately feel that the question of "Is there a god?" belongs to the same category as the question "If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound?" It's an interesting question, but the answer ultimately doesn't (and shouldn't) make any difference.

Also see: Do Zen Buddhists Believe in God (Part 2)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ip Man 2

I was really looking forward to Ip Man 2, as I enjoyed the first movie a lot (see Zen Throw Down review: Unfortunately Ip Man 2 is a disappointment and a surprisingly weak film. It's a classic case of a martial arts movie getting too slick for its own good while trying to go mainstream. Ip Man 2 lacks the fights needed to appeal to fans of the genre, but it's not strong enough in plot and characterization for mainstream audiences to care.

Ip Man 2 is certainly a well-crafted flick, but I just didn't find any heart or soul in it. The fights contain far too much Matrix-esque wire-fu and some of it is so silly that it makes the film ridiculous. You can't treat it as anything other than a popcorn flick, and yet it's trying to (I think) have some kind of heart. Worse than that, there are tons of fast cuts that prevent the performers from showing off their skills, and this makes you wonder if it's all special effects. Big turn off for a genre fan.

So what about the things mainstream audiences will look for: plot, acting, characterization? Ip Man 2 doesn't deliver any of this. Donnie Yen reprises the role of Ip Man capably enough, but his sincere performance seems lost and out of place in this silly movie. It's almost as though he and his character are beside the point. His student, Lueng, was well-played and interesting, but the character is not developed and goes nowhere. His wife's pregnancy was all front and center but has nothing to do with anything. A close friend of Ip Man is homeless after taking a Japanese bullet in the head and...not sure why that's in the movie as it also goes nowhere. Sammo Hung has great presence, but his character is undefined. First, he's a Hong Kong martial arts mafioso (which is a bit silly all by itself), but then we find he's working for the Brits, but then he changes sides...sort of. Huh??? What's the point of this? The final scene with a young Bruce Lee is dorky and feels tacked on to the end of the film.

The main reason Ip Man 2 will fall flat - for any viewer - is that there is no conflict. Who or what is Ip Man fighting? First we see him trying to open a martial arts school to make ends meet. Then he comes into conflict with Hung, but since Hung's having his chain yanked by the Brits they become allies in short order. Then the rest of the movie is about a boxing match with a British boxer, which Ip Man has to take on and win because...uh, well...I'm not sure why he has to take it on or win. So there can be a big fight at the end of the movie?

I also have to say that this Western fight/match with crooked 'bosses' rigging things was done far, far better in Fearless. In that movie, if Jet Li's character didn't take the match or lost it then his school and people would be shamed. Ip Man 2 tries to mine this vein but lacks the heart and soul to can't make the sparks fly. Ong-Bak worked this angle better, too, and it wasn't even trying to nor were those fights the core of the film (except as awesome displays of skill!). In Ip Man 2, the crooked Brit police chief running the match is too poorly played and laughable to be a real villain. His arrest at the end is corny. The match itself is not very interesting, and I still don't get the 'realization' that inspired Ip Man to open the decisive can of whoop-ass at the end. Lame.

Without much martial arts action and without a central conflict or a reason to care, it's hard to find Ip Man 2 anything but empty and directionless. This undermines the impact of the fight scenes, especially since they aren't being showcased for their own sake. I walked away from the movie feeling as though its only point was to cash in on what I understand is an Ip Man phenomenon in the East. Donnie Yen lost a good deal of credibility with me on this one.

Worth renting if you're a huge Donnie Yen fan or can't live without seeing more of his Ip Man franchise. Even in that case, though, don't expect much.