Monthly Archives: August 2014

City Mouse or Country Mouse?

barn

Carolyn and I live in a small town in Indiana. It often feels like a plate of white beans: bland and unexciting. This weekend, however, finds us in the New York City area, and Indiana is beginning to have a certain attraction.

I love Manhattan, with the architecture, vibrant energy, and good restaurants. Wandering through Central Park up to the museum district is one of our life’s great joys. But driving around on the outskirts of the City is to be caught up in a frenetic maelstrom. People seem frantic to get to where they are going, and there is a general feeling of discourtesy and selfishness. Fear, aggression and scarcity seem to be the values that shape the highway environment. I could well be wrong about all this, but it does seem sad to me that people live with such fearful, self-centered urgency.

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On Reading Plato

Plato
About 35 years ago, Plato stopped being a stuffy old philosopher full of “teachings,” and became a friend. For the previous five years, I had been centering each semester’s introductory course around The Republic. After ten preparations, I had gotten pretty good at showing the chain of Plato’s reasoning from beginning to end. I thought the book was brilliant, although it contained many ideas that did not seem to make a lot of sense to me or to my students. Still, the ideas that did make sense were numerous enough to justify the book’s 2000 year stellar reputation. (Who, after all, will be reading this blog in 4014?)
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A song of wisdom

photo (1)
This is a lovely painting by my friend Sylvia Bower. For me, it embodies these beautiful verses from the Dhammapada:

THOSE WHO AWAKEN
NEVER REST IN ONE PLACE.
LIKE SWANS, THEY RISE
AND LEAVE THE LAKE.
ON THE AIR THEY RISE
AND FLY AN INVISIBLE COURSE,
GATHERING NOTHING, STORING NOTHING.
THEIR FOOD IS KNOWLEDGE.
THEY LIVE UPON EMPTINESS
THEY HAVE SEEN HOW TO BREAK FREE.

Appreciation of the Self #2: Calculating Mind and Generous Heart

raspberry
I have written about the practice that Carolyn and I enjoy every morning of reading aloud together. We have recently come upon a book we find stimulating and inspirational: The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. Roz is a successful therapist and leadership coach in the Boston area, and Ben is a world renowned symphony conductor.

They have a refreshing and clarifying way of dealing with the ego/self relationship that I have been exploring in a number of essays. Rather than speak of ego with its sometimes confusing and always negative connotations, they use the term “calculating self.” They refer to the generative and compassionate part of ourselves as the “central self.”
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Jazz is love made manifest

I believe that all art is Love made manifest, but since the jazz piano has been one of my best friends throughout my life, I will use this genre to reflect on the lessons that the fine arts offer to the art of living.

Let me start with a couple of stories:

Many years ago, I was playing the 5-7 slot at a good hotel in Burlington, Vermont. After a couple of months, the management hired another piano player to play the later hours, and since I did not know him, I stayed behind to hear what he could do. His technique was amazing! A friend leaned over to me and said “Cat’s got chops!” I nearly ran out of the building in a panic, thinking my career was over. But I heard a glimmer of something off. For all his talent and hard work over the years, it was clear that HE was the point of his playing. He knew he was good, and he not only wanted, but needed, everyone to know it. This need of his ego, however, leached the soul from his music. I decided I could continue playing.
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A second story: I had the privilege of working for many years with a magnificent sax player named Larry McCrorey. We had played nightclubs, hotels, and weddings for over twenty years, and we were very close. For all this time, however, we had never played a concert–until one fateful night in the Spring of 1983. We strolled onto the stage with our sidemen with hardly a thought and proceeded to play tunes with which we were very familiar. We quickly knew, however, that something was very wrong. We never missed a beat nor did either of us play a wrong note. We played every song correctly–but none of it was very Good. Larry and I were both lost and sick at heart, wondering what had happened, and the more we tried to fix it the worse it got. The audience seemed to enjoy the performance, but we both knew it had been flat, heartless, without soul. And we had no idea why.
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Personal Rituals: Lectio Divina

There are certainly serendipitous turnings on the road to Wisdom. The phone rings, a stranger is kind, you are really seen by someone at a party, or exactly the right book falls off a shelf into your hands. These are moments of grace, telling us we are not alone. The road to wisdom, however, also calls for intentional practices, called Sadhana in Eastern traditions. These are practices that are aimed at becoming more self-aware and less self-conscious, and at deepening the beliefs that create a more ample and generous world in which to live. In subsequent essays, I will be writing about practices from various traditions, but for today I would like to share one of the rituals that enriches the lives of Carolyn and me. I realize that the rituals we weave into the fabric of our lives are ultimately highly personal, but it is also helpful, I think, to glean ideas from glimpses into each other’s lives.
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The Colors of Translation

 

 

colores

Translation is a tricky thing that calls upon the sensitivities and experience of the translator.   It is clearly a challenge to capture the spirit of a poem while remaining somewhat faithful to the original.  In my opinion, Stephen Mitchel is a master of the interpretative rendering of foreign texts.  His offerings of the Tao Te Ching, the poems and letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, and the Bhagavad Gita all provoke my mind and touch my heart.

The translation of Haiku poetry is a great example.  The most famous poem of Basho reads in Japanese:  “Furu ike ya, kawazu tobikomu, mizu no oto.”   Literally, furu (old) ike (pond) ya (a filler), kawazu (an old word for frog; the modern word is kaeru), tobikomu (tobi=jump, komu=enter), mizu (water), no (possessive particle),  oto (sound).   So: “Old pond, frog jumps in, sound of water,” which is exactly the translation given by  Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) who was one of the first Westerners to live deeply into Japanese culture.   Alan Watts was more poetic, reaching for the sound of water without naming it:

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
Plop!

Or this rendering by a Japanese poet that attempts to convey a richer meaning:

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water —
A deep resonance.

Nobuyuki Yuasa

And so I would like to offer this rendition of a favorite song whose melody is as beautiful as its words.  It was sung often by Joan Baez, and became the unofficial theme song of the United Farm Workers movement.  It seems to me that “Los Grandes Amores (the great loves)” of the chorus hint at the idea that we not only love the colors, but we love the Love that colors our world.

De colores,
de colores se visten los campos en la primavera.
De colores,
de colores son los pajaritos que vienen de afuera.
De colores,
de colores es el arco iris que vemos lucir.
Y por eso los grandes amores de muchos colores
me gustan a mi.
Y por eso los grandes amores de muchos colores
me gustan a mi.

Oh the love, that clothes the fields of Spring with colors.

Oh the love, that colors the little birds that come from afar.

Oh the love, that colors the rainbow that we see light up the sky.

And for all this, I love the Great Loves that brighten our world with so many colors.

And for all this, I love the Great Loves that brighten our world with so many colors.

Sentō (銭湯): A Japanese Public Bath

The cicadas of July were singing wildly as I made my way through the streets of Kyoto. It was 1987, and this was my first trip to Japan. I had been lucky enough to receive a grant to study Japanese language and culture for a year in an American college, and then to spend a full month in any part of Japan I chose. Since my interests centered on Japanese religions, I of course headed straight for Kyoto. Reading Chinese characters, or kanji, was far beyond me, although I did have a tenuous grasp of the Japanese syllabary. Reading the street signs, however, was out of the question, and I had a feeling, both terrifying and liberating, of being an illiterate three year old.

I had arranged to stay at a temple lodging, a shukubo called Myoren-ji, in the Nishijin area on the northwestern side of town. After wandering the neighborhood for an hour or so, I luckily discovered a narrow wooden temple gate opening onto a long stone path that I followed to the door of the lodging. On my calling hello, the door was opened by a smiling woman of about 60. Her name was Iida-san, and during this and subsequent stays at her temple, we became good friends.

She poured me a cup of tea, and in very good English explained that I would be sleeping on a futon in a lovely tatami room opening onto an inner garden. She continued that I could assist the priests with chanting in the morning at 6:30, and she would serve breakfast at 8. So far so good, but then the idyll ended, and my neophyte’s heart skipped a beat. There were no bathing facilities at the temple, she said, but she would give me a bathing bucket, soap, a towel, and a ticket each day for the sento just around the corner. I was going to become much more intimate with the Japanese people than I had anticipated.

That evening at around 6 o’clock, I found the sento. I pushed through the noren curtain at the entrance, having no idea what I would find on the other side. I immediately found myself facing a high desk manned (and I use that word advisedly) by a Japanese woman in her 80’s. She immediately sensed my discomfort, imperiously snatched the ticket out of my hand, and disdainfully tossed her head in the direction of a door to her right. The pink door on her left was clearly not for me, so I figured I would at least be spared a bi-sexual bath.

I passed through the blue door, and found myself in a small locker room. This wasn’t too different from my high school, so I quickly and completely disrobed, locked my locker, and hanging the key on my wrist, opened the door at the other end of room.

Sento1

Now I was in another world. Along one wall there was a series of spigots perhaps a foot off the floor. Along the other side of the room were three steaming tubs that I will describe in a minute. Four naked men were each sitting in front of a spigot on a tiny plastic stool on which one was expected to sit while washing. My first fear was that I would never make it down to the stool, and look foolish suspended in mid-air. I did make it, however, and then tried surreptitiously to watch the other men in order to learn the protocol. You filled your bucket with water and poured it over yourself, and soaped vigorously from head to foot. It then required many buckets full of water to rinse. I can’t tell you how awkward I felt, sitting cheek to jowl with a bunch of strangers, trying to bathe in a tiny bucket.

sento2

At least I had remembered that one washed thoroughly before getting into a tub. But now it was tub time. There were three tubs from which to choose. The first was filled with a bilious looking green concoction. The second was filled with clear water, but one finger told me it was beyond hot. As I stuck my hand into the third tub, I was literally shocked by a pulsing current of electricity coursing through the water. My only option was green, and it was actually quite relaxing. After a ten minute soak, I met the final challenge of the night: drying myself with a tiny wet towel. Believe it or not, it worked, and I headed out into the Kyoto night with a feeling of accomplishment.

The second night went off without a hitch, and on the third night I confidently strode into the sento like a seasoned Japan hand. The old woman even greeted me with what seemed like a friendly nod, and chatted away. Her lack of teeth, however, did not help my fledgling understanding of Japanese. At any rate, i was walking tall as I entered the locker room and began to undress. Suddenly my fingers froze on the third button of my shirt. The outer door of the room burst open, and the ancient ticket-taker walked in trailing three of her cronies. They were carrying folding chairs that they set up right behind me, and settled in for their evening’s entertainment. I didn’t have the nerve to bolt into the night, so the only thing for it was to continue disrobing with as much aplomb as I could muster. Every piece of clothing that disappeared into my locker was greeted by hoots, waves of laughter, and a running commentary in Japanese whose meaning was both unintelligible and unmistakable. I finally turned to them and offered the full monty with a deep formal bow. They applauded my performance like school girls, and their raucous laughter pursued me as I escaped into the tub room with a red face and a white bottom.

I soaked for as long as I could, and was relieved to find that they were nowhere to be seen as I dressed in the locker room. On returning to the temple, I recounted the story to Iida-san, and she began to laugh as hard as the sento ladies had. “Oh John-san,” she said. “They are not used to seeing western men naked, and they were enjoying your hairy body.” A week later, I told the story to my American friend, Birger. He, too, laughed, and then asked “Did you understand anything at all?” “Well,” I said, “I did pick up the word ‘saru,’ which means monkey.” “Well, old buddy,” he said, “at least they got something right.”

Hiroshima and Wounded Knee

The southern coastline of Honshu sped past the window of the Bullet Train. This trip to Hiroshima was near the end of my first stay in Japan. A deep, albeit vague, sense of atonement had finally outweighed my apprehension, but I still felt a quiver as the train glided smoothly into the station. I had a compelling urge to announce to everyone within earshot that I, too, hated war.

I stepped onto the platform, descended the stairs to the main level, and emerged at once into the heart of the city. To my left was a row of buses. A sign in English read “Peace Park, Bus No.5,” and I joined the line of Japanese passengers. A fifteen minute ride through the rebuilt city brought us to the Atom Bomb Dome, the only original building which remains at the sight of the blast. Although it was a commercial building during the war, it now resembles the charred remains of a celestial observatory that stands as a sentinel at the entrance to the beautiful acres of grass and trees which memorialize the dead of Hiroshima.
the-dome-at-peace-park
As I entered the park, I struck up a conversation with a couple from Kamloops, British Columbia. The husband taught grade school there. He carried a suitcase filled with hundreds of paper cranes folded, origami style, by his students. He had carried them thousands of miles to add to those already draped over every tree and statue. Schoolchildren from all over the world were creating a peace memorial that most of them would never see. At his invitation, I slipped a white crane into my shirt pocket as we joined the people streaming into the park.We paused first at the Peace Memorial Cenotaph, commemorating the 200,000 people killed by the Atomic Bomb. The cenotaph is plain and dignified. An eternal flame burns in front of a reflecting pool. On the face of the cenotaph the motto of the park is carved in stone in Japanese and English: “Repose ye in peace, for the error shall not be repeated.”

The largest building in the park is the Peace Memorial Museum. It houses displays which evoke the devastation in somber tones. In the corner of one case rests a wrist watch with its hands forever frozen at 8:15. In another room, the marble stairs from the Sumitomo Bank are discolored by the shadow of a man who had been sitting on them. He had been disintegrated by the blast. Pictures of horribly burned men, women, and children are everywhere.

Back outside in the sunshine, I watched laughing schoolchildren feeding flocks of doves. Their carefree abandon washed away some of the horror I had just witnessed. I sat quietly for a while. Then I walked slowly away, still stunned by the enormity of the event, but comforted by the awareness on the part of so many people that the tragedy visited upon this city was indeed an error never to be repeated. Finally, on the way out of the park, I visited the gift shop where I picked up some postcards and a lovely bronze plaque inscribed with the motto of the cenotaph.

One week later upon my return to the States, I met my wife, Carolyn, in San Francisco, and we began a drive across America to our home in New England. Three days later, we found ourselves in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. We stood on top of a knoll under scudding grey clouds, etched against the vastness of the surrounding prairie. My trouser legs snapped in the relentless wind which rolled off the Black Hills thirty miles to the west. Carolyn stood on the other side of the mass grave into which troops of the United States Government had tossed over 150 men, women and children on the evening of December 30, 1890. My heart felt numb, as bleak as the sere landscape of Wounded Knee.

We had spent the morning searching for this place. At the Pine Ridge reservation heavy men sat on broken porches. Their opaque eyes formed a wall we were afraid to breach. We drove through without stopping, and thirty miles east swung north on a narrow road to a large decrepit sign announcing the Massacre. Nothing pointed to a grave. A small hill half a mile west seemed a logical place for a cemetery, however, and this is where we found all that remained of Big Foot and his followers. The only marker on the grave was one erected by a son of one of the slain Indians.
OfficialWoundedKneeMemorial
The sighing wind and aching loneliness contrasted sharply in my imagination with the flash of devastating violence which erupted here just over a hundred years ago. Alarmed by the death of Sitting Bull and afraid for his people, Big Foot had led his band of 350 ill and undernourished people toward the Pine Ridge Reservation seeking the protection of the great Chief Red Cloud. They were met by soldiers under the command of Major Samuel Whitside, Seventh U.S. Cavalry. Whitside forced the Indians to camp in a circular enclosure at Wounded Knee. He mounted four Hotchkiss guns on the surrounding hills. Throughout the night Big Foot’s people suffered terribly in the bitter cold. In the morning, as Whitside’s men attempted to disarm the Indians a shot rang out. The men on the hills panicked. As the Hotchkiss guns raked the enclosure, Indians fell by the score.

The slaughter ended as quickly as it had begun. The deep mud, now crimson with the blood of the murdered Sioux, muffled the cries of the wounded. A blizzard loomed on the horizon, so the soldiers gathered those who were still alive into wagons and hurried off to Pine Ridge. In their haste they left the dead where they lay.

A burial party returned the next day to find countless bodies frozen into grotesque postures. Quickly, almost furtively, the soldiers dug a huge hole into which they threw the bodies of the fallen Indians. Then, like a cat covering an obscenity, they closed the grave and turned away. A picture of Big Foot’s corpse can be seen today at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington; the mass grave, however, lies forlornly in the desolate, forgotten emptiness of Wounded Knee.
dream catcher

The Sioux Shaman Black Elk was present at the burial. Many years later, he delivered this prophetic epitaph:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream… ”

Carolyn and I were shrouded in silence. We had no words for each other, for the Indians, or for God. She returned to the car, leaving me alone with the wind. After some time, Carolyn climbed slowly back up the hill to where I stood. She knelt down for a moment, then straightened and took my hand. I looked down. There on the grave at our feet rested a white paper crane. Next to it lay the bronze plaque from Hiroshima. “Repose ye in peace,” it said, “for the error shall not be repeated.”
white crane