Date: Sat, 16 Apr 2005 00:44:58 -0700 (PDT)
Well, I got out of Chiang Mai, and this morning ran into a woman from Kansas (she assures me that some Kansans practise yoga like she does, and she is very well traveled, unlike most Kansans.)
But I pointed out to her that I have met more people from Sonoma County than from the rest of the USA almost put together. two each from tiny Forestville, Sebastopol and Petaluma alone.
She figured as I did that Chiang Mai with a population about the same as Santa Rosa, would be jam-packed with Thai New Year and Water Festival revelers.
Well reveling there was for the past few days. On two successive days I ran into young people in their 20’s who invited me to join them, plying me with Seagram’s and cheap Thai whiskey (I politely declined, but did nurse a beer over three hours.)
But the really nice thing about my stay in this little town of about 3000 is that it is so reminiscent of Monte Rio (I think) where the Russian River is a great place to hang out on a hot summer day. The water was about 75 degrees this morning but yesterday in the late after noon it was probably bathtub temperature.
Hundreds of people, mostly young. Early in the morning before it got too hot I climbed up the hill where there is a very nice Temple and met the senior monk there, who teaches a form of meditation paying close attention to movement as you walk, stand or do various exercises, kind of like Tai Chi.
The first picture [hit thumbnail to enlarge] is one of young Thai monks. Monkhood is one way for poor young men to get a home and schooling, and I have met several very good monks who came from poor families, in addition to ordinary Thai men who are now living as ordinary people but spent their childhood as a monk.
I also show a cute picture of a Thai family on a motorcycle. I have seen as many as 4 grown men on one motorcycle, and yesterday, being a holiday, had many young families visiting Tha Ton for the festival.
One interesting thing about Thai culture is the modesty of the people. I never saw anyone wearing a bathing suit, and saw only two young men NOT wearing a t-shirt—people bath fully clothed. Maybe its different in the South with its reputation for fast women and a big sex industry, but here except for the large amounts of whiskey and beer, it seems pretty much confined to splashing water both in the river as well as on the streets. I didn’t see even too much drunkenness.
Right now it is about 95 in the internet shop and I will be jumping in the river after I finish this.
The third picture is that of a beautiful pagoda under construction. You can see the gleaming spire.
One question that comes up is, with all the images of Buddhas, and the shrines and so on, are Thai people, and Buddhists in particular, idol worshippers.
At a recent meditation retreat, the teacher pointed out that meditation has nothing to do with believing or not believing anything. It is a method of identifying our own false ideas about the way things really are, by rigorous examination. And this is not intellectual work, but through mindfulness of the body alone. Careful attention shows that the body, as is true with all matter, is mostly space, but true freedom arises from the experience of this , not an intellectual idea.
The historical person who became known as the Buddha, put it quite well, when he said, don’t believe what is written in holy books or stated by teachers or authorities or what is conventional wisdom or what is widely reported or believed. Investigate thoroughly for yourself.
He even told people not to believe him but to verify everything for themselves.
That said, it is a fact that this is hard work. It is much easier to get spoon fed information and believe. it. I met a guy from Georgia in Fang and we got into a go around about this.
He believes in the Bible implicitly, because many historical sites in the Middle East have been excavated and seem to confirm Bibilical accounts. However, when we get to things like the world being created in 7 days, 5000 years ago, he says that since so much in the Bible is authenticated, it must all be true. That is false logic, and in fact a common ploy in modern propaganda. Tell part of the truth, then after people believe you throw in lies that they don’t bother to question. Each “Fact” must be verified on its own merits or not.
As for idol worship, I know of a number of people who impute special status to pieces of cloth with different colors, or pieces of paper with pictures of dead men and pyramids. PYRAMIDS on them! People spend much of their lives trying to accumulate these pieces of paper, and the more they get of these ALMIGHTY DOLLARS, the closer to bliss they think they will be. They may even lie cheat and steal or even kill for these. So What is idol worship?
As a kid, I used to watch Big Brother , Bob Emery (yes that was the name of the show) and every day, all the kiddies would rise in the peanut gallery (that is the studio audience) and raise a toast -a glass of milk–to a picture of President Eisenhower. This while “Hail to the Chief was played.
One person’s symbol is another person’s idol. But boy do people get upset if you question the reality of such a transference. A Buddha statue has no more intrinsic value than a dollar bill, but they each mean something to whoever ascribes them meaning.
But one thing about the worship of Buddha images, as well as statues of famous monks here. While the people doing such worship are not doing the work themselves of perfecting their character, as the teacher, Goenka, reminds his students is “the real work”, at least they esteem those who have done the work of perfecting their character.
In Thai Buddhism, the highest level of human achievement is an arahant, literally, one far removed from character flaws, having rooted out all greed, anger foolish thinking, etc.
This occurs only after very rigorous self examination. I once asked a monk here, who spends time at different temples and seems to be a quite free spirited sort, “How many arahants do you think there are in Thailand?” He replied, with a twinkle in his eye and a cat who ate the canary smile, “I don’t know how many arahants there are in Thailand, but I know my own understanding”.
In closing this missive, I want to honor Bob Marley, who wrote Redemption Song.
Bearing in mind the Fraternity of Bush and Kerry at Yale is Skull and Bones (really) which was founded by slave traders and opium smugglers, here are the lyrics
Old pirates yes they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the almighty
We forward in this generation
All I ever had, is songs of freedom
Won’t you help to sing, these songs of freedom
Cause all I ever had, redemption songs
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look
Some say it’s just a part of it
We’ve got to fulfill the book
Won’t you help to sing, these songs of freedom
Cause all I ever had, redemption songs
Redemption songs, redemption songs
First Published at http://www.cuke.com
What is this thing about sitting meditation? Sometimes I wonder what it is that makes me sit and practice, and after all, why lots of people throughout history have done so. Most people, especially Westerners think that meditation is something weird or even dangerous. Years ago, I visited a community not too far from my university. This was a time of burgeoning spirituality in 1970. I was talking with one of the members of the community and when I told him I was interested in meditation, he replied that meditation was a sin. Since when has breathing while being aware of one’s own breathing been a bad thing?
Another time, years later, I went on a business trip to Birmingham, Alabama, for a workshop. My host, in the midst of some cordial banter, asked, “So what did you do before you were in the insurance business? I said, “I was a Buddhist monk”. A big curtain of ice crashed down between the two of us, and his face became cold and hard. “THAT’S DIFFERENT!” he shot back. Sheesh!
Well, nowadays there is growing interest in meditation practice, but in Asia, I find that people are far more open to the subject even if they don’t do it. Seems like people at least in Thailand and China, where I have spent most of my time the last few years often consider it fairly normal. And commendable.
So the question is, what is it about meditation that is so special while not being special at all?
I did a web search and found pictures of various famous sages. Here is a classic picture of Shakyamuni Buddha, who reportedly lived about 2500 years ago, and is considered the founder of Buddhism.
This is Hsuan Hua, the famous disciple of Chan Master Xu Yun. Hsuan Hua established a strong Buddhist Center in California, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, in Mendocino County, as well as other centers. There he is, sitting in Lotus Position.
Here is Lahiri Mahasaya, the famous sage discussed in Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.
This is a picture from the Brooklyn Museum, showing a man meditating in a garden setting. I think this picture is Persian, but I am not sure, he does not appear to be East Asian.
Here is a picture of the great sage, Laozi, who lived in China and was roughly contemporary with Gautama, the Indian who became known as the Buddha. As an aside, he got the name “Buddha’ because when people asked him who he was, he answered, “Buddha” which means literally, “Awake”. Laozi was the main founder of Daoism. The Dao is “the Way”. Things just as they are.
And here is another picture of Daoist Meditation
Daoist, Meditation, “Gathering in the Light” is the method used.
Here we see depicted Mahavira,
a contemporary of the Buddha. It would hard for the average person to tell the difference between this picture and one of the Buddha. They both advocated sitting crosslegged, and both are often depicted with hands in their lap, seated on a lotus seat, with a halo on their head. Mahavira was the founder of the Jain religion which is still practiced in India.
Some contemporary sitters in a park, enjoying their meditation together.
What do all these spiritual practitioners have in common? They SIT!
Years ago, while I lived at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm, I spent time with a Yurok Indian Medicine Man, Harry Roberts, who actually was half Irish and half Indian, but had trained with his Uncle, the tribe’s medicine man. He told me that one of the practices that he did was to go to an isolated forest or mountain place, draw a three foot circle, and sit there for three days with no or almost no moving.
When I was waiting for an airplane in the Singapore Airport recently, I asked if there was a meditation room. In Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand, there is a room for Buddhists and a room for Muslims. In Singapore there was a prayer room that is presumably non denominational but probably almost anyone using it is Muslim. There is also a meditation room, for the use of anyone. I went inside and there were just a few small mats and one chair. I arranged the mats so I could do Zazen (seated Zen meditation), and was there for a few minutes when two people entered. One sat crosslegged and one sat in a chair. Because of the hat one wore, I knew they were Muslim. I could hear them talking. Probably Malay, one said one sound that seemed to be “Buddha’. So my guess is, that they were talking about that Westerner sitting by the rear wall of the room, and guessing I was Buddhist.
Interestingly, I visited a bead shop in Singapore, and the owner sold various kinds of beads, such as necklaces. He also sold Buddhist malas. And when I saw some odd ( to me) looking malas, he told me they were Muslim beads. They have 99 beads, and Muslims chant the names of God. Buddhists use ones with 108. And of course Catholics also use rosary beads. Well, it is not the same necessarily as sitting, but they are used to help control the ongoing out of control thought process which 99% of us call ‘thinking’.
One time I found myself, through an internet chat situation with someone with an Arabic sounding name. He was fretting about the world, which I can certainly relate to. So I suggested that he go into a quiet room, sit down, and start to breath. Breathe in “Al” and breathe out “Lah”. Al lah….Al lah. He was flabbergasted. “How did you know I already do that, you must be Muslim!” “No, I replied, this is normal, sit down, breathe in breathe out, this is the human way to calm the mind”.
“No no…you must be Muslim… you should read the Koran.” I thanked him for his suggestion.
The forest monks in Thailand breathe in Bud, and breathe out Dho…Bud…dho. Same thing. There are all kinds of methods one can use in the process of meditation, but common to many many is the simple act of sitting. But why sitting?
Sitting seems to be the natural way for us to just settle down. But in addition, when we sit in a symmetrical way, such as crosslegged, or in a chair with feet planted on the ground, our body finds alignment and balance. Once the body is aligned and in a state of balance and in harmony with gravity, our whole being settles down, in a natural and harmonious way.
We don’t have to “do” anything. Which is exactly the point. We humans are always doing or thinking we “have to” do something. Eat, sleep, walk, talk, but these are more complicated and require more than just the act of focusing, or just observing. So we create more and more stuff from our actions. It really does get tiresome, finally!
There is nothing to do and nothing to fix. Everything is just as it is. Once we are willing to Just Sit, just standing, just walking and so on become natural, our life becomes seemingly effortless, without struggle. “Learning” to sit is the first step.
Lying down is OK, too, but it seems harder to keep the mind from wandering. Likewise with walking or standing. All of these are good and useful, especially if done observantly.
Once we reach a point of observing and focusing, then our actions start to change in subtle ways that are apparently more harmonious. Humans share some basic hardwired values, like not harming or killing, stealing lying, etc.
Of course those unwholesome activities can be very profitable, which is why lots of people do them. But in the end, settling down, seeing things as they are, life becomes somehow easier.
So, sit, be aware.
Usually, when we enter a Buddhist temple or meditation hall, there is a statue or an image of Shakyamuni Buddha, or another of his famous disciples or other Enlightened Beings. People objectify these images, and we bow to them. Some people dismiss this as idol worship. How can bowing or offering incense of flowers to a block of wood or stone be useful?
However, when I see a such a statue, I ask, what is this about? Is the block of wood saying, ‘give me money’, ‘give me incense’, ‘light a candle’, etc.? I can assure you that the image will do just fine without that (although making some offering to the temple will help support the activities there of course, and also help to open our hearts with the feeling of generosity.) But that is not what the statue is ‘saying’. I am amazed that people overlook this most direct teaching. Children learn by watching and copying others. So the wordless teaching of a Buddha image is, “if you want to be liberated and free, like me, then do what I am doing RIGHT NOW. SIT!” Said with a smile of course.
The great founder of Soto Zen (Caodong Chan in Chinese)Dogen Zenji, gave a wonderful exposition of this practice, Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen. In it he says,
“Need I mention the Buddha, who was possessed of inborn knowledge? The influence of his six years of upright sitting is noticeable still. Or Bodhidharma’s transmission of the mind-seal?–the fame of his nine years of wall-sitting is celebrated to this day. Since this was the case with the saints of old, how can we today dispense with negotiation of the Way?”
Of course, this sitting does not mean being a Couch potato! It is not an excuse to zone out. However, sitting frees us from the usual tasks that living beings have, and allows us the freedom to direct our mind, or as Dogen says, to turn the light backward. Instead of always looking outside, look within.
Jesus said not to worry so much about the splinter in the other person’s eye, but to see the log in our own eye. That is the same idea. It is sitting which is the scalpel that refines our consciousness.
When we first start to practice sitting meditation, our minds and bodies may be very restless and even uncomfortable, kind of like a fish out of water, flopping around, or, as it said in some of the earlier Buddhist texts, like a calf tied to a post, jumping around, trying to escape.
However, if we use our consciousness and effort to gently and persistently return to just sitting with our meditation topic, be it mindfulness of the breath or body, or thoughts, or a mantra, or other specific mental object, or even, no object just attention to the present moment… at some point we realize that Dogen is correct when he says, that Zen sitting is ‘not meditation, It is simply the Dharma Gate of Repose and Ease.
Sitting down, settling down, we find that we and everything is somehow OK just as it is. From there, we can go out into the world and act appropriately.
Look again at all the famous sages noted above, from many spiritual traditions. What do they have in common? They sit!
Shortly after I arrived in Xiamen, I was staying in a guest house in one of the few older districts left in Xiamen. Many Chinese cities nowadays have torn down the older neighborhoods, preRevolution. One such neighborhood had seen many overseas Chinese built large beautiful houses there, in the period of the 1930’s, I believe. And this one neighborhood was slated for demolition, in order to build the predominant highrises or as occurred perhaps 20 years ago, non descript grey concrete housing. Most of the Overseas houses, though, had quite a lot of charm, built from brick or occasionally having stone exteriors.
The place I was staying in was brick, and had a nice yard and patio. However, shortly after I arrived, I got a really bad case of bronchitis, brought on, I think, from the air conditioner in my room that had not been well maintained. It took me a month to get better, having thought I was better and then getting a relapse after a day out and overexerting myself. In any case, the proprietor let me know that a large group was coming in, and I had to leave.
So, even though I was feeling sick, but at least improved, I called my friend Cheng Rong, who spoke with Jing Wu Fashi, the abbot at Tong Bo Yan Si. He arranged for the office manager to meet me at the Bus stop in Tong An, the smallish city in the Xiamen district, but outside the city proper. It reminded me a little of the situation in San Francisco, which is a coastal city, but with suburbs outside the city across the Bay.
Likewise, Tong An is reachable by a bridge which separates Xiamen Island from the mainland. After a wait of about ten minutes, my old friend Xiao Xie showed up in the Temple SUV. In Chinese, the character Xiao, means small. And there are lots of Chinese who have a two syllable name beginning with Xiao. So I think when you see someone with a ‘Xiao’, it is sort of similar to the diminutive. Like Johnny, or Billy or Jimmy or Bobby.
Since I was coming on sort of short notice, they had not really prepared my room. The room was built higher up the mountain from the room I had stayed at last year, and was accessible either by a dirt road, winding up the mountain, or by a footpath chopped out of the mountain and made climbable with stone steps most of the way—about 250 pretty steep steps.
When I got there, it was early July, the hottest time of year, with temperatures in the high 80’s-90’s Fahrenheit, or mid to high 30’s Centigrade. HOT. And the room was built into the mountain and its roof was the stone floor of the top plaza, where the original 800 year old temple and hermit cave were located.
Xiao Xie got a mosquito net out and set it up, and got my bedding together. I was still weak from my illness and the heat was overpowering. The room had an air conditioner, but I was wary of it since I had gotten sick earlier. So I opened it up and saw that it too needed a serious cleaning. I told Xiao Xie about this, and the next day, a three man crew came with some water blasting equipment and gave the air conditioner a serious cleaning. After that, I kept it on a fair amount of the time. However the electric grid is not so developed, so it didn’t have enough power to really work well. It was better than the one at the hotel, which, though it cooled the room was dangerous to use.
So I settled into my routine. My goal was to do a 100 day retreat, sitting about 8 hours a day. That is pretty challenging, and so I started off slowly, and gradually to build up stamina. I also read about an hour a day from one of the old Zen Koan books. This one was used a lot by the Soto School in Japan, that is called Cao Dong in Chinese. It is often named after the two founding masters of that school, Dongshan Liangjie and his disciple, Caoshan Benji. See the website, http://www.caodongzazen.com/english-CaodongFamilyTree.htm mo
With all the tension in the world today, I wondered what to do.
My grandmother told me that only her sister and her cousin escaped from the horror of Europe in WWII, across the USSR, to Palestine, every one else died. The Nazis could easily have defeated England, and Europe would be a very different place.
We are often told that “America won WWII”.
What we are not told is that Germany attacked Russia in June, 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor. (They delayed the invasion due to some of their army tied down by the GREEK resistance, but that’s another story.)
We are not told that over 20 million Russians died between then and May 9th, 1945, when the German army finally surrendered.
We are not told that Germany lost the war, at the gates of Stalingrad, when the German army surrendered, and Russia counterattacked and went all the way from deep in Russian territory, to Berlin.
By contrast, the US attacked on D Day, 1944. We lost 400,000 dead, not 20+ million, and aside from Pearl Harbor, US soil was never touched. America lost about 3000 killed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Russia lost over one million people in Leningrad alone.
The Russians were attacked by 222 divisions. America faced only 11 divisions, of a severely weakened German army.
So in recognition and gratitude, and in the face of Obama’s petty refusal to attend the 70th anniversary of that May 9th Victory, I decided to go to see for myself what is going on there. It is important to note that in the parade, Russia’s military was joined by China’s and India’s as well as several other countries, and I think 25 countries sent delegations. So if you think that Russia is isolated, and that US policy towards Russia is working, think again.
When I arrived at my inexpensive hostel in Moscow, the pretty young English speaking woman at the front desk said, jokingly,
“So you are American, did you bring a gun with you to protect yourself from us monster Russians?”
The 70th anniversary was a very big deal. There were posters everywhere, and that victory is a national holiday, like our 4th of July, complete with fireworks and parades. And why not? What Russia went through in WWII makes our Revolutionary War look like a walk in the park. This was not just about getting rid of the King of England, it was a matter of national survival.
Heck, if by some miracle, we European based invaders suddenly disappeared, the Natives whose land we really did devastate, would be as happy as the Russians were, to have defeated the Nazis.
While in Moscow, I went on a couple of walking tours, to the Kremlin, the Lenin Library, the fancy shopping district, and interestingly, the Moscow subway, or Metro, many of whose stations are decorated with mosaic ceilings, sculptures, chandeliers, and so on. On one of the tours, a man approached and asked if anyone wanted to go to the Bolshoi Ballet.
It was expensive–$80 for one of the worst seats in the house, high up on the top balcony, and way off to the side, you had to lean over the rail to see the full stage. I thought, how could I NOT see the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow of all places. The house was packed.
As I made my way around Russia, you might imagine, people were curious and surprised to see an American, since there aren’t that many around. Not too many English speakers either.
However, people were friendly.
My first dinner, I went to a cafeteria style very popular restaurant, where I could point to what I wanted. No menu needed.
When I saw what was offered, I felt like I had gone to my Nana Goldforb’s house, or maybe dropped into a Bar Mitzvah.
The food is very similar to the Jewish home cooking that my grandmother served. Pickled herring, soups, chicken, were a reminder of my childhood. I even saw Homontaschen, the traditional Jewish three cornered pastry everywhere.
There are a number of museums but unfortunately, I had no guide, so it was hard to get around to see everything. But fortunately, my hostel was right near the center of Moscow, so I could get a good feeling for the city.
There is Kremlin, with its iconic cathedral,Saint Basil’s, and many Churches which have reopened since the USSR discouragement of worship ended. Most people are very patriotic, there is a lot of nostalgia for the days of the USSR. and lots of Hammers and Sickle are around. However, Stalin has been more or less discredited. Lenin, less so. On the other hand, some people still credit Stalin’s leadership in defeating the Nazis.
There is also quite a bit of controversy about his rule, whether we are told in the West the true story or not, in full.
He was quoted as saying that Russia was 100 years behind Western Europe and America, and that if Russia did not modernize in 10 years, it would be crushed. And an attempt was made to crush Russia, more than once.
Another example, was a recent US story by some American who said that the Nazis and Russians planned to divide up Europe in a treaty called the Molotov Ribbentrop treaty.
I had to point out to the person who told me about that, that Stalin wanted to build communism within Russia, and defeated Trotsky, who wanted communism to expand. Hitler’s Mein Kampf made it clear that he wanted to expand to the East, that he regarded Slavic people with contempt. So that treaty was similar to Chamberlain’s “peace in our time’ treaty, where Czechoslovakia was sacrificed to give England time to prepare for a war they knew was coming.
Likewise, people often criticize Russia’s decent into totalitarianism, with its horrors. but few know that England, the US, France and Italy and Japan attacked after the Bolshevik revolution.
“Workers of the world, unite!”
Not if the capitalists can stop it. If Russian had not been threatened, things may have turned out differently. See below for more on that. Someone once said “Your’e paranoid” “True, but even paranoids have enemies!”
Anyway, what I saw was that Russia today is attempting to integrate its past, under the Tsars, who had their own problems, the Communists, and the Russian Church. Some people have become religious, some not. Young people have mixed feelings about the Communist era, many are glad to be free, that is free to struggle in a much more competitive environment, dominated by money. When the USSR fell, Russians traded lack of free speech for a dog eat dog economy. Which is pretty much what I see in every country I have been in. Lots of young Russians are scraping by on low wages and high expenses. Sound familiar?
Next, I went to Crimea. Crimea is famous to us for the Crimean War. Crimea reminds me of Sonoma County, California, where the climate seems to be similar (except none of Sonoma’s coastal fog). There is also a strong influence of classical Greece. Probably why for centuries, various countries have fought over it.
I visited a city on the Black Sea coast, called Sevastopol, from which the name Sebastopol (near the Sonoma County city of Santa Rosa ) comes.
The Nazis attacked and, following a brutal year long siege, eventually captured Sevastopol early in the war, but after Stalingrad fell, the Russians battled back and recaptured it. One resort town, Yalta, was the site of the famous conference between Roosevelt Churchill and Stalin.
My Hostel manager, who also was my guide for two days, gave a lot of interesting background, which I remember only in part.
Churchill was deeply impressed with Stalin as an extremely erudite figure, who had studied all sorts of subjects from history, culture, science, politics, and so on.
Roosevelt got along with Stalin much better than Churchill, though. Many streets are named after Russians, but only Roosevelt has a street named after him, the only foreigner to be honored.
I pointed out to her, that Harry Truman was installed in a coup at the Democratic National Convention in 1944. Had Henry Wallace replaced Roosevelt, as the Democratic party base wanted, there would probably have been no Cold War. But the oligarchs in the US were in charge way back then, too.
Outside of Sevastopol was a secret submarine base, now a museum, that was designed not only to house Russia’s submarines, but also do nuclear weapons work. It was designed to survive for three months after a nuclear blast.
I asked, how did Russia get ‘the Bomb’, so soon after the war, having been totally devastated.
Her answer, ‘Espionage. The first Russian bomb was a replica of the bomb that hit Hiroshima. Many scientists in the Manhattan project were refugees from fascism. They did not want one country, the USA to threaten Russia.
After the war ended, Churchill had the idea to reconstitute the German military and invade Russia., using 100,000 Wehrmacht troops whom the US, Britain and mainly the USSR had just defeated! You probably think, “oh Eric that is just unthinkable”; and you are right! It was called Operation Unthinkable. What a lovely man Churchill was….
Turning to the recent past, we have heard that Russia invaded Ukraine, and annexed Crimea. Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of State, said that the Russians essentially terrorized the Crimeans to vote to be swallowed up by Russia.
So I asked as many people as I could about this. One young waiter in a restaurant was reticent about discussing anything.
But everyone else I talked with was relieved to be back with Russia.
Two encounters in particular stand out.
I wandered into an art gallery, and met a nice lady attendant. Her daughter speaks English and acted as translator and hostess.
She had been in the Ukrainian military, Her grandmother during WWII had fought the Nazis, which gave Masha, the daughter, great pride. In September 2013, her military base was attacked—by a neo Nazi paramiltary group, who wanted to capture her base’s weapons. So that means that a civil war was brewing well before the fall of the Ukrainian government in February, 2014.
When the coup occurred, —and it was a coup—planned by Victoria Nuland, John McCain and the US ambassador to Ukraine, Masha, knew immediately what had happened. She deserted and went back to Sevastopol, where her mother (the art gallery attendant) works.
If you are not familiar with the coup, then you are victim of the “Vietnamese attacked our ship in the Tonkin gulf”, or the “Saddam has WMD’s and can use them in 45 minutes” or Colin Powell’s “Saddam’s mobile weapons labs (which turned out to be hydrogen gas makers for weather balloons)”, or any number of blatant lies we have been told throughout the years, to railroad us into the constant wars.
Russia, if it wanted to could have easily, in 2008, rolled into Georgia, and ousted the government. It could easily do the same to Kiev, but it has not. Rather, NATO which was supposed to be disbanded after the USSR ended, has instead expanded. Even after the Warsaw Pact did disband.
My observation, is that when any of these types of historical fact are presented to most people in the USA, people simply don’t believe them. It is too disturbing to look in the mirror and see who is the source of the problem.
Another encounter is also important to note. A young couple with their little boy were staying at the hostel in Sevastopol.
They are from Donetsk, which is the area hotly contested in eastern Ukraine. Their home was destroyed in a bomb attack, They are lucky to be alive. Many of their friends have been killed. The wife’s mother’s home was also destroyed.
The husband, Victor, has PTSD, as does the wife. The hostel manager found him under a bed when he heard airplanes flying overhead. If you were bombed for weeks on end and finally your home got blown up, you probably would hide under a bed, too.
These are what the Ukraine government calls terrorists. Unarmed civilians, whose native language is Russian, which is now illegal to use in Ukraine.
While in Sevastopol, the seaport on the Black Sea, I visited the Leo Tolstoy Museum. When I went in, and people saw that I am American and speak English, the librarian, who also speaks English showed me three English language books. One I forget, one was a book with photos of Crimea, and its rich history (including the deep influence of Greek Civilization). But the one I like the best was a chronicle of the great Russian composer, Tchaikovsky– 25 days in America.
In that book they cited the deep FRIENDSHIP, that he had for Americans, and also it cited Mark Twain’s experience with Russia when he went there.
Mark Twain wrote:
“America owes much to Russia, is indebted to her in many ways, chiefly for her unwavering friendship in the seasons of our greatest need. That that friendship may still be hers in time to come we confidently pray; that she is and will be grateful to Russia and to her sovereign for it, we know full well.that she will ever forfeit it by any premeditated, unjust act, or unfair course, it were treasonous to believe”. (Mark Twain’s notebook, Harper and Row, 1935, P 79.)
In the Tchaikovsky museum in Moscow is a souvenir replica of the Statue of Liberty.
“The statue also reminded him[Tchaikovsky], a socially minded intellectual, of something else:America’s friendliness to Russia and her gratitude for Russia’s vast moral and political support at the most trying time in American history–the Civil War. Out to enfeeble the United States,……Britain and France, unlike Russia, supported the Confederacy….”
The Russian scientist, Mendeleyeff said, “You can mix with Americans freely, with no use for ceremony…never see the arrogance…of too many Europeans…. ” “He went on to compare America’s representative democracy to the Russian Autocratic monarchy…America has precious experience for us to consider as we work on our political and social structures…”
After Russian ships arrived in New York, they were greeted (during the Civil War), by “a steamerload of ladies and gentlemen…all shouted “Hurray” and showed ‘a sympathy out of the ordinary’ for the Russian officers and the ‘hearty enthusiasm of not only the cream of American society, but of people from all walks of life…”
When the sailors returned to Russia, the US ambassador gave a dinner and the following toast,
” Since the time of Catherine the Great, since the day the American nation was born, we have always been friends…No dark reminiscences cloud our friendship. It will go on provided we observe one strict rule: to never interfere in each other’s internal affairs…The benefits of such relations can serve as political examples for the governments of the whole world. Then, gentlemen, vast expenditures on hostile navies and on supplying numerous armies will stop of themselves. They will be replaced by flourishing peaceful industries, global fraternity, and genuine civilization.”
How have things gone so off track?
One hundred and twenty years later, having been invaded by Napoleon in 1812, by the Germans in 1914, by the British in 1919, who used poison gas–” A staggering 50,000 M Devices were shipped to Russia: British aerial attacks using them began on 27 August 1919, targeting the village of Emtsa, 120 miles south of Archangel. Bolshevik soldiers were seen fleeing in panic as the green chemical gas drifted towards them. Those caught in the cloud vomited blood, then collapsed unconscious.”
Winston Churchill’s shocking use of chemical weapons
and again by Germany in 1941, is it possible to understand why Russia is concerned when Nato has missiles right on the border with Russia, why it is concerned when, in violation of agreement after the USSR ended, when Nato promised not to move ‘one inch to the East’, that it has taken in many of the former republics of the USSR. And directly interferes in Russian internal affairs by use of NGO’s that are indirectly funded by the CIA?
Or that George Bush walked out of the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, and both administrations have proceeded to surround Russia with weapons that make a US nuclear first strike possible?
And historian and critic William Blum has noted, the US has overthrown or subverted 60 countries or assassinated or attempted to assassinate many leaders of foreign countries who would not bend to US demands? Just since WWII.
But it is all Putin’s fault.
Why? Because, after the US made use of predatory capitalism and US and Russian oligarchs, to asset strip Russia in the 1990’s, just like the Wall Street gang has done in numerous countries, including the USA. Finally, Putin said “Nyet”. No more.
Everything that was expressed in Tchaikovsky’s book has been violated—by the US.
Most Russian understand this, and some Ukrainians and other former USSR republics also understand it, but many buy into the narrative of ‘freedom and democracy’ as their economies get stripped, their pensions get stolen, their health care costs rise, and the costs of war in terms of wasted dollars and broken bodies pile up. All based on lies piled on lies.
William Blum once quoted a US Government spokesman during a news conference during the Vietnam War.
If You Believe the Government, ‘You’re Stupid’ | Consortiumnews
If You Believe the Government, ‘You’re Stupid’ | Consort…
Americans are taught the myth that their democracy is safeguarded by an independent press.
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Winston Churchill’s shocking use of chemical weapons
Giles Milton: The use of chemical weapons in Syria has outraged the world. But it is easy to forget that Britain has used them – and that Winston Churchill was a po…
Having studied the lies we have been told all our lives to justify our massively bloated military budget and bullying tactics, I thought it would be a good idea to go see for myself, what is it like in Russia? Is Crimea held by Russian aggression, or did the Crimeans vote freely to disassociate themselves from a neofascist regime installed in just another of the many American concocted coups, starting with the overthrow of Iran’s democracy in 1953 and Guatemala’s in 1954. It’s all documented.
I really wish that more Americans would turn off NPR, cancel their subscription to the NY Times, smash their television sets, get on a plane and go visit other countries, and just LISTEN to what the people of the world have to say, such as the woman I met in a Thai monastery who said succinctly, “Your government is run by gangsters”.
Well, enough of this rant. I will close by mentioning some pictures that I took.
1. The iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.
2. Stained Glass window in the Moscow Metro (subway)
3. Ceiling mosaic in the Moscow Metro
4. A Famous Church inside the Kremlin
5. A poster with Putin winking and the symbol of Russia (like the American Eagle), winking. Caption I think says, I am a friend of Putin. Maybe similar to the Campaign slogan for Eisenhower, “I like Ike’
6.Poster, 70 year anniversary of Victory
7. Greek ruins near Sevastopol
8. A group of little girls on parade on Youth day, a National holiday, May 19th, where kids of all ages do a parade with their clubs like Tai Kwan Do, Science club, dance groups and so on.
9.Two newly weds with the bridesmaid, on their honey moon is scenic Sevastopol
10. Garden of a palace of the Tsar, near Yalta
11.Youth on parade. the black and orange ribbon is a symbol of St. George the patron saint of Russia. Now it is often shown with the Hammer and Sickle, together, which I interpret as the psychological integration of the Monarchy and the Revolution.
12.The doors to the underground, blast resistant submarine base
There are lots more but that is probably enough for now.
A final word. Russians are humans, just like you and me. Maybe more so.
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To my Zen and Chan brothers, sisters and friends,
As you may know, I spent about 6 months in China last year. I stayed at one particular temple for a two month stay in early spring and another 3 weeks in October. The monk is a Soto (Cao Dong) monk, and his favorite Zen text is the Blue Cliff Record. For one month, I did a pilgrimage through some of the temples and sites that we have all read and heard of through the years. There is a brief travelogue with some pictures on my website, http://www.bumbelbuddhist.wordpress.com.
I also have a much longer narrative that I will put online at some point.
However, I thought I would share the highlights of the conversation I had with Ming Hai, the abbot of Bailin Si, that is, Cypress Forest Temple, in September, 2013. You might find it useful or interesting.
First a little background. Minghai Da Hesheng (that means Big Monk, or Abbot in Chinese) is the disciple of Jing Hui Lao Hesheng (Jing Hui, the ‘old monk’–the equivalent of Roshi–an honorific title for a revered older teacher). Jing Hui, who died almost a year ago at about the age of 80, was very important in the recent history of Chinese Buddhism. He became a monk at the age of 13, and was the disciple and attendant of the legendary Chinese monk, Xu Yun “Empty Cloud”. Xu Yun lived from 1840 to 1959.
As I noted in my recent blogpost, Xu Yun lived through some of the most tumultuous and difficult times in Chinese history. Specifically, he lived through the 15 year long Taiping Rebellion of the 19th century, which resulted in at least 20 million deaths due to civil war and social chaos. Then again, with the collapse of Chinese society and the Qing Dynasty, in 1911, followed by the Japanese invasions and occupation of large areas of China between 1938-45, together with the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, China experienced the death of another 20 million people in WWII, as well as the terrible social disruptions that attended all that.
So Xu Yun, we might say, is a Holocaust Survivor of not one, but TWO Holocausts.
Following the Communist takeover in 1949, institutional Buddhism was suppressed, culminating in the Cultural Revolution between roughly 1966-75.He also was severely beaten by Red Guards, but somehow survived that.
Jing Hui was one of several important disciples of Xu Yun.
Hsuan ‘Hua, who founded City of 10,000 Buddhas, was another one you may have heard of.
During the Cultural Revolution, severe repression took place. Jing Hui had trained with Xu Yun, and I would imagine, it was his position within Chinese Buddhism as a notable monk, that resulted in his imprisonment for 15 years in a labor camp.
However, after the Cultural Revolution, and the rise of Deng Xiao Ping as the ideological successor to Mao, a major transformation began to occur, with religious freedom of expression allowed. One of Jing Hui’s first acts was to gather together overseas Buddhists from Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Korea, to rebuild Bailin Si. That is the temple of Joshu, in English it is Cypress Forest Temple.
Following Joshu’s (Chinese: Zhao Zhou) death, over a long period of decline, Bailin Si, along with many other Buddhist monasteries, fell apart. By the 1970’s all that was left of Bailin Si was a pagoda tower, that had been severely damaged in an earthquake. All the other buildings were gone, leaving just vacant land.
So Jing Hui, prevailing on the desire to rebuild the temple of one of the most important Zen Masters, raised the funds to rebuild Bailin Si. It is now a very active temple in a smallish city outside the provincial capital of Hebei province. It is about two hours on the 180 mile per hour high speed train from Beijing to the provincial capital Shijiazhuang, and another hour by car from the train station to the temple.
Because of my previous trips to China, I had heard of Ming Hai, who has succeeded as abbot to Bailin Si. He had been in a 3 year solitary retreat, however, with the unexpected death of Jing Hui, he was asked to give up his retreat, to step into Jing Hui’s shoes.
I had also had the great fortune to meet Jing Hui and have a dharma discussion with him in 2010, as noted at my website. Several people had urged me to meet Ming Hai as well. So, on my arrival at Bailin Si, I asked to see Ming Hai, but he was very busy. Finally, I got his phone number, and told him that several of our mutual friends had urged me to see him. However, he had left Bailin Si, to visit another temple, preparing for some special occasion, the dedication of a new temple. While Western news reports a lot about China’s economic rise, and building whole cities from scratch “Ghost cities”, what is not reported is a massive temple building program.
Incredibly, he arranged for a car to drive me the hour and a half ride to where he was staying. I was later to learn the good fortune of that trip too.
So that is the background for our meeting.
I started off, by telling him about my background in Zen training, both as a student at the San Francisco Zen Center, and currently as a student of Nelson Foster, who is a lineage holder of Robert Aitken Roshi, who had trained in the Sanbo Kyodan school in Japan.
I had several concerns that I wanted to share with him.
First, I wanted to see if there is some way for Americans and Chinese to meet and share their experiences. Having spent quite a lot of time with Chinese in mainland China since my first trip in 2007, I have observed a tendency for Americans and Chinese to have perceptions of each other that are somewhat skewed.
Because of the history of the past 200 years in China, I think most Americans assume that Buddhism in China is pretty much dead, and that there is little freedom of thought or speech. In the past Communist party members were forbidden to practice Buddhism, but now it is quite acceptable to, and while China has human rights issues, I sense that many Chinese are quite open to discussing these issues, more so than Americans are willing to discuss American political issues.
Second, Chinese think that there is very little Buddhism in America, and often express envy for the democratic processes we are all familiar with.
In fact, Buddhism is now a strong component (though not dominant) in contemporary China. Both educated classes and working class people have large populations that visit and support temples and monks and nuns. In fact, as a pilgrim, I have generally stayed at temples to practice Chan (Zen) for free–I simply make a donation. In only two of perhaps 15 temples I have stayed at, was I asked to pay money. Most temples charge a very nominal $5-10 a day for supervised retreats, and even then, many people who don’t have money stay for free. That is, by donations. Many temples are being built or rebuilt, due to the generosity of donors wealthy and not wealthy. I have observed a really remarkable cultural trait of generosity, and that is what supports not just temples, but friendships as well.
So my question to Ming Hai, was how to overcome these misperceptions of China. I also think it is important for Chinese to understand the political, social and economic issues facing the people of the USA .
Most of all, I wish for a peaceful, harmonious world, or as my Chinese friend Lily Lee says, “A world culture of harmony”. How can we do this?
His answer was that he has met a number of Americans who have come to visit China, and stayed at Bailin Si. For example, Andy Ferguson, who runs South Mountain Tours has brought a number of groups to visit Bailin Si as well as other temples.
Ming Hai noted that when Americans come to see China for themselves, and talk with Chinese Buddhists, they come away with a better understanding and good feeling. We both agreed that it would be good to encourage more Americans to spend time in China. Two of my American friends who went on the tours told me they enjoyed them too. So how can we create the possibility for more exchanges?
Another issue we discussed is Visas. Most people who come to China to see what is happening with Buddhism, stay for a relatively short time. But what about someone like me, who is retired and has more time to stay, or others who simply want to stay in China for a longer time, to go on pilgrimage, stay in temples for longer stay, and so on?
At that point, Ming Hai took out a note book and wrote something down. I asked what was he writing about?
He replied, “I am an Assemblyman (the Chinese equivalent a member of the US Congress), and I want to bring up the subject, of making it easier for people to stay in China, based on religious grounds”.
I was quite surprised. I replied, “Do you know, that in America, you would have to make a $5000 campaign contribution, to get a direct one on one interview with your Congressperson?” “And here I am having an extended talk with you”. Not to mention that he had arranged a car to drive me to meet him. I am not some special person, like a teacher or famous author, just a humble student of the Way.
For him to go out of his way to see me and to see what he could do about making it more possible for students of Chan–Zen–to stay in China, was really heartwarming.
Visas are not easy these days, regulations are tightening pretty much everywhere, but at least Ming Hai was making an effort to promote mutual understanding, and I deeply appreciate him for that.
Ming Hai also wanted to share some concerns he has about American Zen, which I think are worth noting.
First was the issue of ethics. As we all know, there have been a lot of problems in various Buddhist communities over the years.
He may not know of the progress that has been made in these areas, in both the Diamond Sangha as well as the Zen Center. His point is still well taken that there is more work to do, in view of issues with other Buddhist teachers in both Zen, Tibetan and Theravada lineages.
The second issue is his concern about Chan Buddhism seeing itself as separate from Buddhism. In Japan, of course and then in the USA, we have seen differentiation of Zen, Jodo Shinshu, Nichiren, and so on. In China, from my observation, there seems to be less of that, although there are temples where Chan is practiced and others where it is not. I think if I understand him correctly he is concerned about a sort of sectarian elitism in Zen culture.
At Bailin Si, there is a large Dharma Hall and monks do a lot of chanting. Most temples are similar, with chanting and study being more prominent than sitting. I think it would be fair to say that Ming Hai thinks that Dharma study is important and should not be overlooked.
As for meditation, in some temples, monks have their own hall and laypeople sit in their own hall. That is the case at Bailin Si. However, at Yang Shan’s temple and Mazu’s temple, there is one meditation hall for everyone. Likewise, the temple where I have spent the most time, Tong Bo Yan Si, is headed by a Cao Dong monk, and monks and laypeople sit in the same hall. Likewise, at Nanputo, there is a large beautiful Chan Tang, or Meditation Hall, and both monastics and laypeople sit together.
I visited one nunnery, but didn’t stay there. I have heard that there are some nunneries where lay men can stay too. So there are no set rules, that I can see.
Both Yang Shan Xi Yin Si and Bao Feng Si where Mazu taught 1200 years ago, have been rebuilt and both hold meditation retreats. I have been invited to stay and do retreats at all these temples and certainly other Westerners are welcome to join in, too.
My sense is that in China, there seems to be a feeling of a need for preparation for sitting. In the West, and even in Thailand, meditation practice is fine for even rank beginners, like most of us were when we started. Many students practice by sutra chanting, and there are temples where students study the Vinaya assiduously. Or it may be that some Chinese themselves feel they are not ready to sit, and ask for preliminary practices.
One question that I did not ask was about the temple where I met Ming Hai. It had also been rebuilt by Jing Hui, and since I read only a smattering of Chinese, I didn’t know what some posters on the wall said. Later, I asked a monk about the temple. He explained that it was at this temple YuQuan Si, that Wansong, the great Soto Master, spent a lot of time writing the Shoyo Roku, that is, the Record of Ease, or Book of Serenity or Congrong Lu, the main koan collection of the Soto School. In fact that was one of the temples I had wanted to visit. I thought that I was going to miss it due to my travel schedule, and not really knowing how to get there.
So it was by accident, that Minghai happened to be there, and with his kind assistance, I was able to complete the pilgrimage of temples I had planned.
On the other hand, the Chinese say, there are no accidents.
That was how I got to meet Minghai, and see Wansong’s temple.
PS I am returning to China in two weeks and several of my Chinese friends have asked me, how can I help to open the doors to develop friendly relations with Americans. Especially American Buddhists. On possibility is to set up a website or maybe even a forum or organization. If any of you have any ideas, I would very much enjoy hearing from you.
Also, if you know of other people who would like to hear about this, please feel free to forward it.