Caveat: each time a different way

My loyal blog reader (and once-upon-a-time college roommate in Saint Paul in the 1980s) David Dickerson writes songs sometimes. He forwarded this one to me, and granted me permission to publish the lyrics as one of my “not my poetry” poems. I like the idea that sometimes the poetry published on my blog is by people other than me, but whom I actually know.

Roadside Buddha

Traveller, where are you going?
May I help you find your way?
Cause you have so many questions
Written on your face

I'm a roadside Buddha and might know the way

Yes, I've been there many times
But each time a different way
So you'll have to ask again
At the start of every day

I'm a roadside Buddha in a world of change

I regret I can't go with you
If you look back, you'll see I'm stone (a weathered stone Buddha)
I just wake the wisdom in you
You must go your path alone

I'm a roadside Buddha and here I'm home

Carry me in your heart (In your heart, in your heart)
Help others find their way (Help us shed the darkness)
Give them sustenence and love (Give us love, give us love)
You'll grow richer every day (Sharing makes us richer)

Be a roadside Buddha who colors the gray

And if you look into the future
You'll see that I'm ahead
Waiting by the roadside
To lend a hand again (To lend a hand)

I'm a roadside Buddha going your way

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Above is a picture of a “roadside Buddha” whom I saw often in Korea. It’s along the trail at the Yeongcheon Temple (영천사) on the western flank of Gobong Mountain (고봉사), which I used to visit when living in Ilsan, Korea – it was the closest “traditional” Jogye Temple to where I lived (there were closer temples, but those were modern, urban temples, like the one behind the Cancer Center). It was about a 3 km walk. There was a very kind monk there with whom I sometimes spoke in my bad Korean. I believe one time I took my mother there and she met him, too.
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Caveat: A bitter taste

The doctors said that I might regain some nerve-endings over time. They do grow back, sometimes.

Many of you know that I lost 90% or so of my taste buds, with my cancer surgery and tongue reconstruction. For these past years, the main taste I can experience has been “salt.” The others are almost non-existent. It doesn’t quite impair my ability to enjoy “taste” in the broader sense – at least half of what we think of as taste is not related to the taste buds at all but rather to things like smell and what is called “mouthfeel” – texture, I guess.

A few years ago I suddenly regained feeling on the back of my hand where it had been lost when they extracted nerve and muscle tissue for my surgery. Those nerves grew back.

Recently, over the past few months, everything I eat has begun tasting bitter. I don’t think I’ve suddenly become a bad cook for myself. I think what’s more likely is that some of the “bitter” taste buds in my tongue have somehow reactivated. And so things are tasting bitter.

I see karmic irony in this, given I’ve been in an emotionally bitter state since the disappointing news about my residency status with respect to the University of Alaska’s teacher certification program. Which bitterness drives the other?

Perhaps I’ll mull the question over a nice bitter cup of coffee.
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Caveat: what spills out?

Below is a story circulating as a meme online – attribution is unclear to me.

You are holding a cup of coffee when someone comes along and bumps into you or shakes your arm, making you spill your coffee everywhere.

Why did you spill the coffee?

“Well, because someone bumped into me, of course!”

Wrong answer – you spilled your coffee because there was coffee in your cup. Had there been tea in the cup, you would have spilled tea.

“Whatever is inside the cup is what will spill out.”

Therefore, when life comes along and shakes you (which WILL happen), whatever is inside you will come out. It’s easy to fake it, until you get rattled.

“So, we ask ourselves…., “What’s inside my cup?”

When life gets tough, what spills over?

Joy, gratefulness, peace, and humility?

Or, anger, bitterness, harsh words, and reactions.

You choose!

Today, let’s work towards filling our cups with gratitude, forgiveness, joy, words of affirmation, kindness, gentleness, and love for others!

Caveat: ensnarement

To Be a Good Buddhist Is Ensnarement

The Zen priest says I am everything I am not.
In order to stop resisting, I must not attempt to stop resisting.
I must believe there is no need to believe in thoughts.
Oblivious to appetites that appear to be exits, and also entrances.
What is there to hoard when the worldly realm has no permanent vacancies?
Ten years I’ve taken to this mind fasting.
My shadow these days is bare.
It drives a stranger, a good fool.
Nothing can surprise.
Clarity is just questioning having eaten its fill.

– Jenny Xie (American poet, b?)

[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: not not choose

"I am my choices. I cannot not choose. If I do not choose, that is still a choice. If faced with inevitable circumstances, we still choose how we are in those circumstances." – While this quote is widely attributed (as an English translation) to Jean-Paul Sartre, I can't seem to validate it in any kind of original French-language text. Certainly he said something similar, though.

[daily log: walking, 2km]

Caveat: 家和萬事成

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I learned this aphorism from the Shamanism Museum on Friday.

가화만사성 (家和萬事成)
ga.hwa.man.sa.seong
home-harmonious-everything-achieve
A happy home can achieve anything.

It was on a sign board on an outside wall (picture at right).

The most notable thing at the museum, to me, was the extreme similarity and parallelism between these shamanistic accouterments and images and those I normally associate with Korean Buddhism. I suppose 1500 years of coexistence has led to extensive syncretism on both sides.

So I took some other pictures at the Shamanism museum.

There were some exhibits.

picture

There were various rooms.

picture

There were token examples of Nepalese and Tibeten shaman costumes, perhaps to justify the name “Museum of Shamanism” as opposed to “Museum of Korean Shamanism.”

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There were stylistic pseudo-Chinese decorative objects.

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There was a tranquil-looking back room.

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The museum’s location is in a newly developed neighborhood of typical Korean highrises, but the building itself is a historical site of some deified ancestor.

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[daily log: walking… uh, nope.]

Caveat: 십년공부 나무아미타불

I learned this proverb from my book of Korean aphorisms.

십년공부 나무아미타불
sip.nyeon.gong.bu na.mu.a.mi.ta.bul
ten-years-study “namo amitabha buddha”
[After] ten years of study, [one is reduced to saying] “Namo Amitabha Buddha.”

This is an interesting Korean proverb, because although the proverb itself is Korean in origin as far as I can figure out, the phrase “Namo Amitabha Buddha” (rendered as namuamitabul) is Pali (the language of Buddhist scripture), filtered through Chinese.

The phrase “Namo Amitabha Buddha” is an invocation of the Amitabha Buddha, which under the Pure Land tradation (“Amidism”) within Buddhism, frees the invoker of his or her karmic hinderances.

The meaning of the proverb, however, is about the phenomenon of Buddhist monks who become enchanted by secular women, apparently a commonplace in the Korean folk tradition. So the monks would chant “Namo Amitabha Buddha” in an attempt to escape such enchantments, but the point of the proverb is that they are trying to escape the earned consequences of their own behavior. There is a specific story where a monk studied for 10 years and then fell for a dancing girl. So after 10 years of study, all is come to naught. The proverb roughly means “All in vain!

This proverb is exceptionally apropos, as I approach the 10th year anniversary of my sojourn in Korea, and yet, due to my own laziness and poor behavior, I still have failed to really master the Korean language: ¡십년공부 나무아미타불!

[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: Art and the Maintenance of Motorcycle Zen

Someday, I want to create a story or novella with the title, "Art and the Maintenance of Motorcycle Zen." It would be a kind of sincerely felt, but also maybe vaguely comedic tribute, to Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In fact, it wasn't that long ago that I was jotting down a few snippets that might pertain to such a story.

I am reminded of this today because I have heard that Pirsig has died. I have to say that Pirsig's book, and even some of his other activities, have had multilayered influences on my life.

I first read his book as a high school senior, I think. And it was a required text in my "freshman seminar," my first year at college. The book is easily in my personal list of "10 most influential books in my life." It might be the most influential book.

Some of this influence and importance derives from the very weird parallels between the book and my life. And it's an eerie set of parallels, because I read (and re-read) the book before many of those parallels occurred (ECT? check. Zen? check. Philosophical road tripping? check.). So the question naturally arises: did I, perhaps, subconsciously "follow" the book?

Certainly there is one very significant instance, where I think the book might have had a conscious influence. The main character, like Pirsig, is from Minneapolis. And perhaps this raised my awareness about that part of the world sufficiently that it made it possible for me to imagine going there – which is what I did for college. Not many California kids would move to Minnesota, sight-unseen, and so I think the book's presentation of the midwestern landscape embedded it higher up in my awareness, such that I might consider it. I guess it's difficult to say for sure – I remember tracing the route of his motorcycle journey in a road atlas, during my first reading. A line, drawn from Minneapolis to the west coast, that, incidentally passed through my home town on the Pacific, which is actually mentioned in the book (although not as a destination – just in a "passing through" way). That line was effectively reversed when I went to college less than a year later.

The other impact Pirsig had on my life came much later, and was indirect, I suppose - essentially unrelated to the book. He was one of the founders of the Minnesota Zen Center. When I moved back to Minneapolis in 2006 (the year before deciding to come to Korea), I attended the Zen Center a dozen times or so. Its location on Lake Calhoun was within walking distance of where I was living, and since I was working to transform my life and habits, I was walking or jogging past it daily - going around that lake was one of my new habits.

So Robert Pirsig is gone.

But, in the Buddhist spirit, I shall interpretatively paraphrase my friend Curt: "Death is nothing."

[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: Miracles of Unbelief

There is a tradition in Buddhism of "acts of truth" as being capable of having great power – of healing, blessing, etc.

This is the use of "truth" as a kind of magic. But the examples that circulate in Buddhist tradition are often humorously ironic.

This anecdote is given by Donald Lopez, Jr, in his book The Story of Buddhism.

…a young boy is bitten by a poisonous snake. The distraught parents stop a passing monk and ask him to use his medical knowledge to save the child. The monk replies that the situation is so grave that the only possible cure is an act of truth. The father says, "If I have never seen a monk that I did not think was a scoundrel, may the boy live." The poison leaves the boy's leg. The mother says, "If I have never loved my husband, may the boy live." The poison retreats to the boy's waist. The monk says, "If I have never believed a word of the dharma but found it utter nonsense, may the boy live." The boy rises, completely cured.

This is a near perfect inversion of the miracle stories of some other religious traditions, wherein someone can be saved by professions of faith. Here, a profession of lack of faith brings the miracle, simply because it is honest. This is, perhaps, why I find Buddhism appealing.

[daily log: walking, 6km]

Caveat: 선문오종

Like other religions, Buddhist canon is full of obscure and strange symbolism. Christianity has the book of Revelations, Judaism has Kabbalah. Sometimes I run across this kind of thing in my Korean-English dictionary of Buddhism (which I read recreationally, because I’m weird). They are always presented quite matter-of-factly, as if any reader would know what it was about.

In the article on 선문오종 [seonmunojong = five Chinese schools of Chan (zen)], the dictionary quotes extensively from someone called Venerable Seosan [서산] (1520-1604). These quotes include little gnomic almost-koans summarizing each of the five schools. These are fascinating because they are so hard to understand what they might be symbolizing.

법안종 Fayan School: “The cloud is chased over the mountain by the wind, and the moonlight is passing over the bridge in company with flowing water.”

운문종 Yunmen School: “All sorts of Buddha are preaching in the confinement of a cup when the Dharma staff has already flown into the sky.”

위앙종 Weiyang School: “A broken stone monument is lying by the ancient road, and an iron bull is sleeping in the house.”

임제종 Linji School: “Behold the thunder in the clear blue sky and the huge sea waves on the land.”

조동종 Caodong School: “It is the right view of non-discrimination of existence and non-existence that existed before the advent of Buddha and patriarchs, and before the time when there was not a thing in the universe.”

So, based on the summaries presented, which school of Zen do you find most appealing? I think I will look into Weiyang. But I need to study more.

[daily log: walking by the ancient road]

 

Caveat: 남아도처시고향

I found this aphorism in my Korean-English Buddhism dictionary. Most of the aphorisms there are embedded in the articles, and are of Chinese origin (since that is the language of Buddhist scholarship in Korea for the most part). This makes them doubly hard to make sense of, and mostly I just go with whatever explanation is given, without trying to puzzle out the etymology.

남아도처시고향 (男兒到處是故鄕)

I found this explanation: 남아가 가는 곳 마다 고향인데, which (very roughly) seems to mean “every place is your hometown.”

I like the sentiment of this. There is an English aphorism that I think it was my uncle used to say: “Home is where you hang your hat.” I think this is similar.

[daily log: walking, 6 km]

Caveat: Right…

What I'm listening to right now.

Franz Ferdinand, "Right Action." Um… this song seems weird. Is it a reference to steps 2, 3 and 4 of the Buddhist eightfold path? Or just a coincidence?

Lyrics.

Come home practically all is nearly forgiven
Right thoughts, right words, right action
Almost everything could be forgotten
Right thoughts, right words, right action

[Chorus:]
But how can we leave you
To a Saturday night or a Sunday morning
Good morning

Sometimes I wish you were here, weather permitting
Right thoughts, right words, right action
This time, same as before, I'll love you forever
Right thoughts, right words, right action

[Chorus]

11 South Court Gardens
England’s Lane past end to London

[Outro:]
Sometimes I wish you were here, weather permitting
Right thoughts, right words, right action
Right thoughts, right words, right action
Right thoughts, right words, right action
Right thoughts, right words, right action…

 [daily log: right]

Caveat: Bug-Murder

I have been somewhat neglecting my efforts at meditation practice, probably to the detriment of my mental health. I still tell people I'm "Buddhist" in Korea when they ask me about religion (which is more common than you would think) – mostly because telling them this precludes the standard opening to Christian evangelism that annoys me so much – but in fact it's a bit of a front. 

I underscored this recently for myself, with a joke with a student. In my TOEFL2 class, there was a big ugly scary bug working its way across the floor. I didn't really want to kill it, but the students were jumping around and being distracted by it: there seems a certain bug-phobia embedded in Korea's younger generations. So, hesitating only briefly, I walked over and stomped on it, on my way out of the classroom. I turned and said, "I guess I'm not a very good Buddhist, am I?" 

This was what you might call a throwaway line – one of those jokes that I make that I don't really expect my students to understand but which I make because when I'm with my students, I make an effort to talk "as much as possible" on the principle of "contextualized input" – it's an actual strategy that's part of how I approach my role as a native-speaking teacher where there are very few native-speaking teachers. 

I was actually quite surprised when one of my students, the quite intelligent Sihyeon, burst out laughing at this joke. On the part of the student, it takes both some actual cultural knowledge and some effort to "pay attention" to previous discussion topics for him to have gotten it.

[daily log: walking, 6 km]

Caveat: y encontrar, por ahora, lo que sea

A LA ESPERA

Por ahora
no estoy muriéndome.
No estoy cantando
ni despidiéndome de nadie
ni llorando por gracias o de nada
ni compartiendo el pan o el vino
por ahora.

Ya sé que no tengo razón,
que le pido al serrucho
que haga un árbol con trozos de madera
y al martillo, en silencio, que acaricie.
Pero en dónde, como no sea en la sombra,
puedo siquiera buscar luz
o nada más buscar
y encontrar, por ahora, lo que sea.

Estoy a la espera de señales
claras, explícitas, rotundas
en el tiempo, en el agua, en una nube
o en los asientos del café:
señales que desmientan
que, hasta la fecha, nada
quiere decir ni ha dicho nunca nada.
– Luis Vicente de Aguinaga (poeta mexicano, b. 1971)

[daily log: walking, 2 km]

Caveat: 부처님 위하여 불공하나

This is an aphorism from my aphorism book.

부처님 위하여 불공하나
bu.cheo.nim wi.ha.yeo bul.gong.ha.na
Buddha benefit-INF hold-ceremony-INTERROG
Do [you] hold a ceremony for the Buddha?

The meaning, according to the book, is that people may pretend to work for their employers but in fact are only looking out for themselves. However, the literal meaning of the phrase is merely, “hold a ceremony for the Buddha” – the bad faith of those holding the ceremony is taken as a given implied by the question, which grammatically is what is called a “mild interrogative” but the -나 ending also has an “adversative” meaning, i.e. an implied “but….

This seems to reflect the category of the old, institutionalized anti-Buddhist sentiment that was one of the ideological productions of the Choson era and which underlies, in my opinion, the success of evangelical Christianity in modern Korea.

[daily log: walking in the rain, 6 km]

Caveat: Sow and Reap

Karma

Karma is what you do and what you reap as a result. If you stand tall and straight in the sunshine, then your shadow will be tall and straight. If you slouch, then your shadow will slouch. If you create noble karma, then you will have a noble life but if you create twisted karma, you'll lead a twisted life.
– ven. Song Choi (Korean Chogye zen practitioner, trans. by Brian Berry)

I don't know that I completely like the emphasis of this quote – it trends toward the "purity narratives" that I detest in religious discourse. However, it is a simple definition of "karma," which is always on my mind, because of my eponymously-named place of employment. Read creatively, we don't necessarily have to imagine that "twisted" is a negative – I could see it as a kind of synonym for "interesting" or "baroque" or something similar.

[daily log: walking, 6 km]

Caveat: One dumb pebble

ONE DAY

Lightning over the hill in front
thunder over the hill behind
between the two
     one dumb pebble
– Ko Un (Korean poet, b 1933)

I don't have the original Korean. I found this poem in a book of his poetry translated.

[daily log: walking, 6 km]

Caveat: 無呌響山谷

I made a surprising and interesting discovery today. I was browsing through my bilingual Korean-English Dictionary of Buddhist Terms, as I sometimes do to kill time and try to learn something (I have always been fond of consuming reference texts qua reference texts, which is why I like to surf wikipedia randomly, too).

I ran across a term I wanted to try to figure out better, and so I typed the phrase into google to do a search, with some accompanying English to rule out the Korean-only sites. Lo and behold, the first site to come up was an online version of my Korean-English Buddhist dictionary. That’s pretty cool: that they’ve decided to make it accessible online like that.

The phrase I was looking for was: 

무규향산곡
(無呌響山谷)
mu·gyu·hyang·san·gok
not-echo(?)-valley

The explanation given in the dictionary is “no echo valley” and the meaning, I think, is that you should stop listening so much to your mind. Turn off the echo-chamber of your brain, or something like that. Stop over-thinking things.

I don’t really know if 규향 means “echo” or not – I’m just guessing. I can’t figure out the hanja – it’s classical Chinese as opposed to something natively Korean, as is true for many Buddhist terms.

picture[daily log: walking, 5 km]

Caveat: Merry Buddhamas

Today was Buddha’s birthday, sometime around 4xxBC, according to the traditional Chinese lunar calendar used in Mahayana Buddhism.

Tnh308To celebrate, I broke my computer yesterday by accident and thusly dedicated myself to reading and meditation. I read a major portion of a book by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. It’s more didactic than inspirational, but it’s a well-written summary of Buddhist dogmas, such as they are.

Perhaps I should break my computer more often.

 


What I’m listening to right now.

David Bowie, “South Horizon.” This is from the album called Buddha of Suburbia which is quite appropriate given the day and my location in that acme of Kburbia: Ilsan.

[daily log: walking, 3 km]

[Note: this post was written on the date and time shown on the post, but due to technical difficulties I was unable to publish it until 2014-05-07 14:40.]

Caveat: watching the monad

The difference between men is in their principle of association. Some men classify objects by color and size and other accidents of appearance; others by intrinsic likeness, or by the relation of cause and effect. The progress of the intellect is to the clearer vision of causes, which neglects surface differences. To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine. For the eye is fastened on the life, and slights the circumstance. Every chemical substance, every plant, every animal in its growth, teaches the unity of cause, the variety of appearance.

Upborne and surrounded as we are by this all-creating nature, soft and fluid as a cloud or the air, why should we be such hard pedants, and magnify a few forms? Why should we make account of time, or of magnitude, or of figure? The soul knows them not, and genius, obeying its law, knows how to play with them as a young child plays with graybeards and in churches. Genius studies the causal thought, and, far back in the womb of things, sees the rays parting from one orb, that diverge ere they fall by infinite diameters. Genius watches the monad through all his masks as he performs the metempsychosis of nature. Genius detects through the fly, through the caterpillar, through the grub, through the egg, the constant individual; through countless individuals, the fixed species; through many species, the genus; through all genera, the steadfast type; through all the kingdoms of organized life, the eternal unity. Nature is a mutable cloud, which is always and never the same. She casts the same thought into troops of forms, as a poet makes twenty fables with one moral. Through the bruteness and toughness of matter, a subtle spirit bends all things to its own will. The adamant streams into soft but precise form before it, and, whilst I look at it, its outline and texture are changed again. Nothing is so fleeting as form; yet never does it quite deny itself. In man we still trace the remains or hints of all that we esteem badges of servitude in the lower races; yet in him they enhance his nobleness and grace; as Io, in Aeschylus, transformed to a cow, offends the imagination; but how changed, when as Isis in Egypt she meets Osiris-Jove, a beautiful woman, with nothing of the metamorphosis left but the lunar horns as the splendid ornament of her brows!

– Ralph Waldo Emerson (American philosopher, 1803-1882), from his essay "History" (1841).

[daily log: walking, 3 km]

Caveat: 9 Months Cancer Free

Today is the three-quarters-of-a-year-iversary of my surgery. I know that I "beat the odds" in that I have a mostly normal life: I can talk, I kept my job, etc. I have to remind myself of that when I feel so miserable and depressed, as I have, lately.


I ran across a quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth in a very unexpected place: on page 921 of my Practical Dictionary of Korean-English Buddhist Terms.

Under the term 인생 (人生 [insaeng] = life), the dictionary says:

무엇이 인생? 사전에는 "목숨을 가진 사람의 존재"라 쓰여 있다. 영국의 문호 셰익스피어의 인생관을 들어보는 것도 나쁘지 않을 것 같다.

인생이란 어설픈 형상 없는 그림자
뽐내고 안달하다 곧 사라지는
한낱 가설무대 위의 광대.
– 셰익스피어, "맥베스", 5막 5장 –

Then, the reference book being a bilingual glossary, a translation into English is provided.

Life: What is life? Let's see what Shakespeare says:

Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then heard no more.
– Shakespeare, Macbeth, V, v –

Note that the translation provided does not translate the introductory phrasing word-for-word – the Korean slightly more detailed, saying something to effect that "the dictionary says 'life' is 'existence of people who have breath of life' but England's great writer Shakespeare's summary is not bad."

I have run across other very interesting tidbits of humor and erudition in this book. I'm glad that I bought it. I'm so strange, my favorite books have always been reference books.

[daily log: walking, 5 km]