Friday, August 31, 2007

Support Our Troops

There has been a great deal of debate in both Canada and the US about "supporting the troops". People who are opposed to the war in Iraq or who, like myself, are ambivalent about Canada's presence in Afghanistan, have some difficulty making the nuanced argument about what "support" means. This statement by Jonathan Chait in The New Republic is the most succinct I've seen so far:
Obviously, the way you support the troops is contingent upon your analysis of the war. If you think the war is succeeding, then supporting the war is a way of supporting the troops. If you think the war is doomed to failure, though, proposing that more troops die in vain is not a way of supporting them.
Now that I think about it, though, even this presents difficulties. Telling the troops that they're dying in vain is demoralizing. Saying a war is "doomed" to failure is demoralizing. It means you're losing. The soldiers don't want to think they're losing. Losing is not an option.

So, I guess you need even more nuance. "We, your political leaders sent you into a war that didn't have a chance right from the start. Sorry. All the shame and blame belongs to us. Now the best we can do is get you out of there as soon as possible."

Update Aug.31/07 11:05am: And in a related item, Glenn Greenwald at discusses how even political journalists cannot seem to disentangle the concept of "supporting the troops" from the idea of continuing the war.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Fear & Loathing in Montebello

Do you get the feeling that our so-called leaders are afraid of us?

That's the question that occurred to me as I watched TV coverage of the Montebello meeting of the Three Amigos.

The summit and its coverage were barely a blip on our consciousness. A few minutes on the nightly news. Commentary during the day. It's as if we hardly noticed that ordinary citizens voicing legitimate protest were assaulted by police. Here in the Peaceable Kingdom.

More than anything, this is what disturbs me. Leave aside for a moment the merits or flaws of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). It's that the people who ostensibly represent us hide behind a wall of police in riot gear, going so far as to invade (I'm tempted to use the term “desecrate”) a nearby cemetery; spray tear gas everywhere; mock the people involved; and pretend that it's just a casual, bureaucratic-type get-together – and we're not outraged by it. It's little more than an item on the national news.

Now, this may be mundane fare in war zones, or riot-prone countries. Not so unusual even in the US, I suppose, which has a history of sending in the National Guard. But here in the Peaceable Kingdom, I'd think such an event would rank fairly high on the outrage scale.

And it leads me to a question we have all had directed at us whenever one of our governments wants to do something that invades our privacy or our civil liberties: Amigos, if you have nothing to hide, what are you so worried about? Really! Why not let everybody see what boring stuff you're doing? Or is it that you spent two days playing on X-Box and don't want anybody to know?

I heard PM Harpie make fun of the protesters and citizens who have been expressing concern for months over this summit by citing the example of one industrialist attendee, a manufacturer of jelly beans. It seems the standards for jelly beans don't quite sync up between Canada and the US. How, he wonders, can discussion of jelly beans possibly be construed as a North American Unity conspiracy? My response to this is: What? You need a battalion of armed guards to discuss jelly beans?

OK, so I've drifted into the pros and cons of the SPP now. In fact, I reserve judgment on this issue. For the moment. I've been reading and hearing about it for months, and in fact intended to write a post about it quite a while ago but never got around to it. It seems obvious to me that the three countries that are party to NAFTA would want to harmonize some aspects of their trade and economic relations. Common standards for jelly beans, that would be a good thing. It's natural that we should agree on certain standards. In my view, though, the agreed-upon standards should be the highest standards, not the lowest. And if any one country cannot meet those standards, well they should not be included. Simple as that.

For example, it's been publicized that the US considers Canada's regulations about pesticide use on fruits and vegetables to be a restraint of trade, because they are more stringent than those in the US. Too bad, I say. The US should be forced to live up to the higher standard. The same goes for any regulation.

These are bureaucratic considerations. When it comes to things about true national interests, like water, oil, security, then I begin to think we are not necessarily obliged to be in lock-step. The SPP raises issues like harmonizing a terrorist no-fly list. We've all heard horror stories about innocent people ending up on such lists. I'm not in favour of bowing to the US on points like this, because I believe the US is still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and is not really thinking clearly about its security issues. And what they've managed to do so far is make us all a little crazy.

One thing that gives me pause in all this furor about the SPP is the strange bedfellows it has created. Here in Canada, the main opposition has come from the Council of Canadians which, by most standards, would be considered left-wing/progressive. Maude Barlow has been pushing the Canadian nationalist/beware the US message for a long time. Often she's right. But sometimes they're a little shrill and paranoid, I think. More so lately. But on the US side, who do we have? Most definitely right-wing Jerome R. Corsi, author of The Late Great USA, prime architect of the Swift Boat movement to defeat John Kerry in the last presidential election...a man who believes his government is leading the Murricans into a North American Union similar to the EU. This is a man who fits comfortably into the spectrum of opinion ranging towards the Michigan Militia and the anti-United Nations fanatics who think they are about to have their freedoms removed by One World Government.

I suppose you could say these widely-divergent world-views are united by a common element: the feeling that the sovereignty of their respective nations will be fatally undermined.

Or maybe two elements: that our governments are not telling us what they're really doing.

And I think that is dangerous.

Meanwhile, we were treated last week to the spectacle of Sureté du Québec officers dressed up in Halloween costumes and deliberately trying to start trouble where there wasn't any. Cops inciting a riot. All for the sake of discrediting protesters with legitimate concerns.

And the patronizing tone of all the leaders, insulting our intelligence and assaulting our fellow citizens. Mark my's crap like that which foments unrest. And then maybe our leaders really will have something to be afraid of. Democracy.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Cheney Says No to Invading Iraq

This video comes courtesy of grandtheftcountry. In this, our lovely Internet age, we wonders, yes we does, whether people/politicians/public figures are suffering from some sort of deficiency (as a learned friend of mine is wont to say.) Surely they must know that their words and actions are recorded and observed and then splashed all over electronic cyberspace. (Surely I know that my words and actions here achieve some sort of immortality, ethereal as it is...)

What changed Cheney's mind between 94 and 02? Did he, perhaps, have a lobotomy we don't know about? All I know is, the word "quagmire" was on every thinking person's lips long before George W sang "Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to war we go!" with Mr. Charm Cheney prodding and poor foolish politically inept Colin Powell enabling.

Mr. Cheney, take your gingko pills faithfully. It might keep you out of the quagmire some day.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Two Additions to Mental Blog

I've added two new things to Mental Blog. One is the IM Larry widget. Yes, another bloody widget. With this, when it says I'm online, you can send me an instant message. We can chat! Oh my, what a concept!

The second is Online Bookmarks. This is a service I've been using as a backup for my Firefox bookmarks. The Online Bookmark Manager gives you the option of making bookmarks public or private. Most of my bookmarks are private, but the few public ones are now available to you too. Over the next while, I'll make more of them public bookmarks.

I don't know if anybody really cares what I'm bookmarking. If you're like me, you've got hundreds, including some you'll probably never look at again. (Or some that aren't valid anymore.) Anyway, here they are. Another sort of Link List. Maybe you'll find something interesting.

Online Bookmark Manager is a Firefox plugin, but you can also get it as a module for your Google or Netvibes page.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Happy Manifestation Day HWSRN

Thich Nhat Hanh says because there is no true birth or death, we do not really have a birthday. He says we should call it manifestation day. So, happy manifestation day, HWSRN!

My Favourite Photo of HWSRN

HWSRN scored tickets to The Merchant of Venice, so he bribed Nurse Ratchet (his date cuz he doesn't like to date himself) to let me and Suzy Homemaker come along. Nurse Ratchet thinks it's OK cuz Shakespeare is supposed to have written some good po-tree and maybe we'll learn something. I say, "If you prick me, do I not bleed?"

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Happy Birthday Larry Keiler

Yes, today is my birthday. Larry Keiler, born Aug. 7, 1756. If you don't believe me go look at my profile.

(Actually, I don't know how 1756 ended up on my profile, but I liked it so much I kept it that way.)

And of course, my altered ego, HWSRN, will be celebrating his birthday tomorrow.

Don't you think it's interesting, that me, the Altered Ego of He, was born before He? How could this be? After all, we're twins, right? Siamese twins, (or, given our Buddhist inclinations, Tibetan twins) joined at the lip. His is thin and sneering. Mine is fat and floppy. Or is it the other way around? Never mind, the only way you can tell us apart is to yell "Hey Bubba!" in a crowded room. The only one who will turn around will be him. Or maybe it'll be me pretending to be him.

My only answer to this thorny puzzle is: amrak! The amrak train arrived a day early for me.

I am like John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness preparing the way. And he is...not Christ! But he comes to me for the baptism of po-tree. And I throw him in the Jordan and say "Sink or swim, buddy I mean Bubba..."

Mostly he swims. Upstream. He is the salmon. I am the roe. We are inseparable and often indistinguishable because we are identical twins of different mothers.

We are the answer to the question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" The egg. The roe. Aug. 7, 1756. The chicken clucked on Aug. 8. Tomorrow he will crow.

What will I do on my birthday? Perhaps I'll be meek and pliable for the orderlies at the Yoni School. Perhaps I will take my meds without complaint. Perhaps I'll refrain from flicking boogers at the walls of potic injustice. Perhaps I'll begin to spell my name correctly: Lairy.

Or not.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Lam Rim Discourse: The Sufferings of Samsara

The Lam Rim (Graded Path to Enlightenment) expounded by Je Tsong Khapa (at left) goes into great detail about the varieties of suffering one experiences in samsara. The purpose of this is to illuminate the Buddha's First Noble Truth: that the nature of samsara is suffering. That all compounded things are in the nature of suffering.

I like the way the Lam Rim works, because it's programmatic. When I'm not being unruly and undisciplined, I'm being programmatic. It's an instruction manual for enlightenment, which might seem a little odd for such a cosmic and spiritual endeavour, but of course, at some point you dispense with the manual and experience directly.

But back to suffering...

There are a whole load of sufferings listed. Literally listed, with explanations. There are The Eight Sufferings, The Six Sufferings and The Three Sufferings. Some of them have subheadings.

The Eight Sufferings

1. The sufferings of birth
    • the birth process itself is suffering

    • the place of birth, which is the aggregates, is suffering

    • our birth is a source for the generation of suffering

    • birth is the source for the afflictions to arise

    • separation (which is a form of suffering) is the nature of birth

2. Aging
    • the good body changes

    • the degeneration of vitality and strength

    • degeneration of the sense powers

    • ability to enjoy sense objects degenerates

    • degeneration of life span

3. Sickness
    • the nature of the body changes

    • suffering and mental unhappiness increase and will become the better part of our experience

    • one doesn't want the things that ordinarily give one pleasure

    • we have to do things we dislike

    • becoming separated from one's life force

4. Death
    • becoming separated from one's possessions

    • becoming separated from one's relatives

    • becoming separated from one's circle of friends

    • becoming separated from one's good, perfect, beautiful body

    • experiencing heavy suffering, both physical and mental

5. Encountering the unpleasant
6. Being separated from the pleasant
    • being miserable because of thinking about one's separation from close friends

    • wailing because of the above

    • becoming sick because of the above

    • becoming depressed by remembering the qualities of nice places and wishing to be there

    • not having enough money and so forth

7. Not achieving one's desires even though one works for them
8. The suffering of taking rebirth with contaminated aggregates
    • inducing the suffering of future lives

    • becoming the basis for the suffering of sickness, aging and so forth

    • becoming the vessel for the suffering of suffering

    • being born in the nature of pervasive compounded suffering

The Six Sufferings

  1. The suffering of indefiniteness

  2. The suffering of dissatisfaction

  3. The suffering of abandoning one's body again and again

  4. Taking rebirth again and again

  5. Moving constantly between high and low

  6. Being friendless

All of these varieties of suffering are subsumed within the Three Sufferings as taught by the Buddha:

The Three Sufferings

  1. The suffering of suffering

  2. The suffering of change

  3. Pervasive compounded suffering


Each of these sufferings has a more complete explanation than the bare list. Some of them are obvious, others are more subtle forms of suffering that may not seem at first glance to be suffering at all. We have to look at them very closely.

A simple example of the suffering of change is this: You go to the beach. Lovely hot summer day. Warm sand. Warm sun. Sparkling water. You sit on the beach for a while and suddenly realize you're too hot. Time to go in the water. How wonderful the cool water feels! What pleasure! But how pleasurable is it, really? It's not long before you're tired of being in the water. It's getting cold. So you go back to your spot on the sand. Maybe play a little volleyball or frisbee. Before long you're hot again. The sun's beating down on you. Back into the water. Or look for some shade. Samsara is like that. What you think of as pleasure is characterized by changeability and has the nature of suffering underlying it. If it didn't, the pleasure of the hot sun would never wane. The pleasure of the cool water would remain with us constantly. But that doesn't happen, does it?

Here in southern Ontariario, we demonstrate the dissatisfactions of samsara admirably. We're never quite happy with the weather. In summer it's too hot. In winter it's too cold. Spring takes too long to arrive, and autumn is a season of dread of the coming winter. In effect, we struggle daily with what is.

One of my favourite analogies illustrates the fifth of the Six Sufferings: constantly moving between high and low. We are like a fly buzzing against a window pane. Up to the top right corner. Across to the top left. Sit for a bit in the middle of the pane. Check out the lower section. What are we looking for, buzzing around madly, distracted and desperate? We're looking for a way out, of course.

What we don't realize is that the window is actually open, a narrow crack at the bottom so that it is possible to escape. But we can't do it by flying around aimlessly, buzzing back and forth, pressing constantly against the glass. This is a recipe for staying trapped. What's required is purposeful action. We need to step back, or at least stop our headlong rushing around. Because, up to now, we've been stuck on the pane of glass, going higher, going lower, rich man poor man, lover, fighter, brave or cowardly, life after life after life. And the purpose of enumerating these sufferings is to make us finally weary of doing it again and again. With perseverance, meditation, that's precisely what happens.

What's maddening to us as we beat our wings on the windowpane is that we can see out there. Freedom is out there. How to get it?

But perhaps that's a bit of a mis-characterization. Because freedom is not out there. It's in here! Nirvana is right here. We're actually seeing it all the time. We're in it. The window is open. We just need to find the crack in our conceptual window frame.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Welcome Back, Kotter

Oh, oh, yes I know I'm dating myself.

No, I don't mean I'm dating myself. That would be a blind date. I mean I'm giving away my age. In fact, I'll give it away to anyone who wants it.

I love starting off posts with blather. I'm sure you can tell. If I were going on a blind date, dating myself, I'm sure I would not tell. I would not kiss and tell.

But enough of that. Why is Kotter on the front page? Because of this piece he wrote for the LA Times. I copied it. I know I'm not supposed to copy it. It's copyrighted. But it's the only way I can think of to get the whole piece in one piece. So I've provided a link to the real piece. I don't know how long these newspaper links stay active. NY Times seems to be about 2 weeks. LA Times longer, but not forever.

Why am I putting this here? Because it's so absurd. Because when we Westerners wonder why, perhaps, so many parts of the world think of us as decadent, spoiled, not to say evil, all we need to do is look at some of what Gabe Kaplan tells us here. Absurd. And some people are so wrapped in their absurdity they can't step back far enough to notice it. Others, like the Sioux City pooh-bahs mentioned by Kaplan, possibly recognize the nuttiness and have decided to revel in it. Which I think is a reasonably sane response.

But then you suddenly discover that Kaplan has gone from being star of a 70s TV sitcom to erstwhile Celebrity Boxer to, actually, a professional poker stud. People are strange. Life is absurd. Samsara is a never-ending carnival.

Enjoy the piece. And the theme song.

You'll let me do what?
The former 'Kotter' star pushes the envelope on how far his erstwhile celebrity can take him.
By Gabe Kaplan

August 4, 2007

Several years ago, I received an e-mail asking me to fight on an episode of a show called "Celebrity Boxing."

For $35,000, theywanted me to climb into the ring and try to pummel another overweight, 60ish, D-list celebrity. The e-mail went on about how much fun I would have (even though I soon learned that my former colleague, actor Ron Palillo, had broken his nose and suffered with body bruises for weeks after the previous show).

Ron had been matched against Dustin Diamond (Horshack vs. Screech). Although one guy was 30 years younger and 40 pounds heavier than the other, the fight still got sanctioned by the erstwhile Celebrity Boxing Commission. Now, it seemed, the producers were having difficulty finding anyone to participate in their third episode, so they came to me to see if I'd be willing to humiliate myself for money.

I sat at my computer for a while after I received this message. For some reason, I didn't feel like politely declining. Instead, I wanted to subtly tell these people what I thought of their show. What was the downside -- hurting my career?

So I started my e-mail by saying how thrilled I was to be asked and that, in fact, I boxed frequently. But I told them that in the years since "Welcome Back, Kotter," I had become a Hasidic Jew and would have to fight wearing a skullcap and tzitzit. (A tzitzit is a body prayer shawl worn under a shirt so that only the fringes are visible.) I wrote that I would be happy to "Pow! Sock!" 70-year old Adam (Batman) West or 80-year-old, former "Diff'rent Strokes" star Conrad Bain. And, I wrote, I could save the network money on expenses, as I always traveled with my own trainer and cut man.

I also requested a press conference before the fight so my opponent and I could hype the match by trash-talking each other. We would be physically separated after inflicting minor wounds.

I hit "send." Needless to say, I didn't expect to hear from them again. So I was quite surprised when I quickly got an answer addressing each demand point by point. They said "yes" to the skullcap and to my own corner men, and "no" to the tzitzit, the press conference and West and Bain. When I realized they were completely serious, I couldn't resist continuing the exchange. So I fired back, stating that I'd be willing to agree to a different opponent, and that no staged press conference was OK -- but that no tzitzit was a deal breaker. I felt like I was in an early Woody Allen film. How far could I go with this?

Having done it once, I couldn't stop myself. Over the next few weeks, and then months, I sent out some more weird e-mails just to see what would happen -- and I found that everyone took what I wrote at face value, no matter how absurd the premise.

The Postmaster General's office, for instance, thought I was serious when I suggested I should be the first living person to grace a U.S. postage stamp. A reputable book publisher, who had published books on the edge of the sexual revolution, agreed to publish my claims to have slept with more than 20,000 women, thereby breaking Wilt Chamberlain's legendary record. Harlequin would consider using my picture for the cover of a novel about a May-December romance. And Sioux City, Iowa, would definitely throw a 60th birthday parade for me featuring floats and plenty of hoopla.

I wrote to the Presque Isle Forum (a 5,000-seat arena in Maine similar to the Forum in L.A.) saying that I would love to debut my new act -- Gabe Kaplan and the Pips (including Bubba Knight and the rest of the original Pips). But I got back a note saying that the Forum only did ice shows from October to March. I responded that "this is an amazing coincidence" because I also wanted to do a show called "Doo-Wop on Ice," in which Gabe Kaplan and the Pips, along with other vintage rock groups, would sing, tell jokes and do some hot-dog skating moves.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't seem to push the envelope too far. Checking my in-box every morning became an adventure. Eventually, I decided to put the best of the e-mails together into a book, which meant that I had to re-contact my pen pals and ask for permission to use their words. Not only did most of them agree, but when I called the Sioux City pooh-bahs to say it had all been a joke, they still wanted to throw the parade for me anyway. So in June, we had the Gabe Kaplan birthday parade in Sioux City featuring floats and plenty of hoopla.

Now I have to start working on those 20,000 women.

Gabe Kaplan played Kotter in the 1970s sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter." He is the author of "Kotter's Back: E-mails From a Faded Celebrity to a Bewildered World."

PS. Musical Trivia: 08/06/07: Speaking of dating myself, the singer of the theme song is John B. Sebastian, who was the lead singer of the 60s band, Lovin' Spoonful. Remember Summer in the City? I recall seeing him in some video playing an autoharp.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Victoria Park at Sundown

unkempt, bedraggled after winter's long tectonic rumble,
the grass greening through muddy footpaths,
here, there, a quick outbreak of exuberant crocuses
shocking in their colour to snow-dimmed eyes

pines, maples, weeping willows spruce up,
unbending toward the warming sun

setting now, an orange with fiery zest,
a target for the takeoff of two geese
suddenly raucous as they heave themselves from the water

a pair of drakes mutter about the state of the lake,
swans stately on the shore

away from the street, the sibilance of cars almost soothes,
soft counterpoint to the mingled calls of sparrows,
chickadees, jays and cardinals, a mourning dove lowing,
all in last-minute flurries
skittering up, down, catching handy branches,
a bite to eat before bed

the air is a breath of moisture,
redolent with earlier rain, green and substantial

lovers walk the paths, low voices laughing,
even the dogs are peaceful


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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Charles Simic, US Poet Laureate

Charles Simic has made it to the top of the potic heap, appointed Poet Laureate in the US. I don't know much about him, only the name. Here's a link for info and poems of his. And here's the NY Times telling us all about it.

I don't know much about his po-tree. I'm a little more familiar with Robert Pinsky, who preceded him and appears now on the right side of the page.

And who is the Canajun Poet Laureate? Hmm...that seems to be a complicated question.

Is it this man?

His name is John Steffler and he's the Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Whatever that is.

Is it this woman?
Her name is Pauline Michel and she was the Parliamentary Poet Laureate before John Steffler. Her term ended in Nov/06

Turns out the question is not so complicated after all. This man, George Bowering, was the first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, whose term ended in 2004. And who wouldn't choose a man who has the Peace Tower growing out of his shoulder?

Naturally it was in the last place I looked, but the article about George Bowering indicates that Canada's Poet Laureate is in fact called the Parliamentary Poet Laureate. I didn't know that. But then, what I don't know could fill a good-sized blog.

For example, I've never heard of Pauline Michel or John Steffler. Are they good potes? Dunno. Who'm I to judge? I'm just a street pote, locked up for misspelling and general surliness. I have several what I call "shopping list" pomes. People seem to like them. I've never been in the Parliament buildings.

I have, however, visited the Golden Boy who faces west from the top of the Ledge in Winterpeg. And they have buffaloes in the foyer! Or perhaps they're bison. There used to be also a statue of Louis Riel naked somewhere on the grounds, but they might have moved that.

Yes, in fact it's now located at Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface, which is in ze French Quarter of ze city. Lovely place. In a Manitoba sort of way. (This photo above reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License.)

You see, they put me in the Yoni School for Wayward Poets partly because I have trouble being serious about serious po-tree. You know, Po-tree with a capital P. I read Robert Pinsky's book, The Sounds of Poetry...from back to front. It made just as much sense to me as the other way around.

Is it a good thing to have a Parliamentary Poet Laureate? Dunno. Seems to me whenever you get Parliaments involved it's a taxing experience. But I heard George Bowering often on Mothercorp, so I guess that's good. Anything to raise the moral, ethical, spelling and potic standards of the Canajun peeples. And, you can actually apply for the job. So that's at least one person who makes a living off of po-tree. Even if it's at the expense of Canajun taxpayers who apparently prefer hockeyhockeyhockey. (Don't get me wrong. I like hockey fully as much as the next Canajun kid who once caught a puck with his mouth...)

On the other hand, serious potes always seem to have universities attached to them. Helluva thing to drag around, don't you think? Much better just to have a dog. Dogs always love you, especially if you feed them. They're not quite as heavy as universities. And they're almost as good as having tenure.

The Parliamentary Poet Laureate's tenure is apparently two years. A dog can live 15 or 18 if you treat it right and take it to the vet for its shots.

I wonder if Parliament would consider creating the post of Parliamentary Dog Laureate? A husky, that's the ticket! A team of huskies! And a sled! To pull the Poet Laureate around the Great White North! I think I'll send my MP an email...

Maybe I'll even apply for the job.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

(Opening Note: This is my second draft of this particular post. The first was lost because it failed to save. That has happened more than once since Blogger introduced its Autosave function. A lesson in impermanence. Don't you just hate it when your immortal prose turns out to be nothing more than electrons that zigged when they should have zagged?)

It's been two weeks now since I and Suzy Homemaker attended the weekend Amitabha empowerment and teachings retreat given by Mingyur Rinpoche. How did this happen? The honchos at the Yoni School relented and let us roam free for a weekend. Spiritual teachings? Meditating? Chanting? "Well," they said, "Anything to raise the moral and spiritual level of our inmates...Maybe they'll start to shape up and integrate themselves into proper grammatical society..."

I'm sure they did not suspect that what Mingyur Rinpoche was teaching us was a technique designed to free us forever from grammatical society and samsara generally -- a practice known as Phowa, or Transference of Consciousness at the time of death. Phowa practice aims at propelling one's consciousness into Buddha Amitabha's Western Pure Land, also known as Sukhavati or Dewachen, where the birds sing Dharma, the rocks are precious jewels, the whisper of the trees in the breeze is the sound of the Buddha, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas expound Dharma all day long, and the cloudless sky rains nothing but bliss. I won't say much about Phowa practice. If you want to know more, here's a website I found. I will say this, though. It's a mighty powerful practice. I've done it now a few times, and without even getting all the visualizations correct or clear, I still experienced the effects, most noticeably a strong tingling and sensitivity at the crown of my head...where the central channel ends. They say that one of the signs of having practised well is that this area becomes soft enough to insert a strand of kusha grass into it.

Amitabha's Pure Land is said to be one of the easiest to reach. (Mingyur Rinpoche said, "How do you get there? Just head west..." He also said, in Tibetan culture "West" connotes cessation, while "East" implies beginnings.) It's one of the easiest mainly because Amitabha wanted it that way. Before he achieved Buddhahood, he formed the aspiration to create a pure land with many good qualities. In fact, all the good qualities of other pure lands. And he wanted it to be a place of rest and refuge, an easy place to be reborn, especially for those who have only just entered the Path.

Therefore, Amitabha wanted his Pure Land to have few entry requirements. There are only four requirements:
  1. take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
  2. generate bodhichitta (the mind of enlightenment)
  3. pray to Amitabha to be reborn in his Pure Land at least ten times, and dedicate the merit at least ten times
  4. not have committed the five heinous crimes/sins/non-virtuous acts (which are: killing your father or mother or an Arhat, wounding a Buddha, and creating discord within the Sangha)
Simple, eh? Of course, the more you do Amitabha practice and the greater your devotion, the more likely you are to reach Dewachen at the time of death, because it will be present and familiar in your mind . It's worth noting that one of the main Chinese Buddhist schools is Pure Land school, where the main practice is the recitation of Amitabha's name.

I've received teachings from Mingyur Rinpoche three times now. And it always fills me with joy and gratitude for having been exposed to the Dharma. Rinpoche's English is good enough now that he doesn't use a translator anymore. And his warm sense of humour always shines through the usual Tibetan formality. He's currently on tour around the world promoting his new book, The Joy of Living.

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