Sunday, May 29, 2005

Dharma talks

Here is an essay by Thanissaro Bhikkhu: it's an insightful piece of cultural criticism, on how the Western post-Romantic worldview tends to distort Westerners' perception of Buddhist teachings. Audio versions of this and his other talks are here.

Leigh Brasington works as a software engineer, and also teaches and leads retreats. He's one of the few people around who really teaches the Jhanas. The Jhanas are states of absorptive concentration that the Buddha described as being necessary precursors to mindfulness. Interestingly, the Pali word Jhana (from some Sanskrit root that I don't remember offhand) became Chan in chinese and Zen in Japanese.

His talks are fun to listen to because he sounds exactly like a software engineer. He'll say, "Now, many people underestimate the importance of practicing attaining absorptive states of concentration" and you'll do a double take because you were expecting him to complete the sentence with "defragmenting your hard drive."

Anyway, his talks on the Jhanas are here, and an essay summarizing his thoughts on the Jhanas and the Brahmaviharas are on his geocities homepage. (I find it rather touching that he's still loyal to geocities.)

Thursday, May 26, 2005

and speaking of books...

Photoshopped romance novel, from Longmire Posted by Hello
"Their romance knew no bounds--but would it increase shareholder value?"

book meme (late and reluctantly; also continually updated because I am a big cheater)

1) What is the total number of books I've owned?

Yes yes yes, we're all bibliophiles around here. But I don't think I've owned more than a few hundred. Not sure. I've moved around a lot, so I've had a lot of purges.

2) What is the last book I bought?

A few weeks ago I bought "The Feeling Good Handbook." It's been very helpful in my efforts to not completely lose my shit while I'm writing.

3) What is the last book I've read?

On the plane on Thursday I read Joseph Goldstein's book "Insight Meditation: the practice of freedom." On Tuesday on the way to the airport I read the latest book in the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series--"In the Company of Cheerful Ladies". (What a lovely series. Check it out if you haven't already.) The last thing I read out loud was a chapter of the first Winnie the Pooh book.

4) What are the 5 (plus) books that have meant a lot to me?

Two by CS Lewis: the Narnia chronicles and the Screwtape Letters.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull--my grade 4 teacher read it out loud to us in class.

Rosemary Sutcliffe's novels of Roman Britain made me want to study Latin.

Cyrano de Bergerac forever warped my view of romantic relationships. It also gave me my first glimpse of the joys and perils of translation. For a while there, every time I went into a book store or library, the first thing I'd check would be whether they had a translation I hadn't seen before. Eventually I had the French original and my favourite translation practically from memory. Ah, the joys of blank verse.

The Fountainhead--it blew my mind in high school, and I now think it's fuzzy-headed post-Romantic trash. Contemplating it and its "ideas" over the years has served as a useful barometer of my attitudes.

Paradise Lost. It's come up three times: first in high school, when I read it for a book report as a one-person protest against the slack academic standards at my school (or possibly just as a stunt; it's hard to tell with fifteen-year-olds); then in college when we studied it for real and my friends and I would take turns reading it out loud (we'd each read different characters' parts; Jesus got a special squeaky voice. ... Well, c'mon, he's incredibly smarmy); then in grad school when one of my friends in the dorm would recite the first book from memory, as a break from demonstrating his blowjob techniques on a winebottle. Good times.

Wislawa Szymborska's poetry, as collected in "Miracle Fair." It's the best thing to come out of my internet dating experiences.

Extra credit question, 'What book would you wish to buy next?':

I'm going to have to get the next Harry Potter book, so that doesn't really count. When I take a bunch of books to the local used book store to sell them, I'll probably end up taking store credit instead of cash and buying whatever catches my eye. mmm. books.

ooh, there's one that gets advertised on the Sojourners mailing list, "The Joy of Work" or some such, that I'm v. curious about. (Update: I've ordered it, also a hardcover copy of "Cauldrons in the Cosmos", THE book on experimental nuclear astrophysics, which is sadly out of print. I found it for a reasonable price. W00T!)

TAG! (5 people whose collections I want to pry into)

Corey, Julie, EvilScienceChick, Kevin and Christine Mitchell (is it cheating to tag both halves of a couple?)

Sunday, May 22, 2005

best quotes from the workshop

A rare moment of candour in a talk: "I don't expect you to be able to read all of this--it's just to impress you."

"People build Rayleigh-Taylor unstable stars all the time--until they're told not to."

A: "This is an anomalous nova."
B: "Every well-studied nova is an anomalous nova."

A: "In this class of novae..."
B: "Wait, that's a class?"
A: (pause) "...well, there's more than one of them."

"Here's the effect of metallicity (showing 2 dense pages of tables): there's no effect."

A: "According to 'theory'..."
B: (in his talk, later that day) "According to 'experiment'..."

"'Prompt' for me is less than a billion years."

A: "It's complicated."
B: (dripping with sarcasm) "Really."

and words of wisdom from Stan Woosley:
"We should all be drinking beer instead of doing numerical calculations."
(plaintively) "Why is everything so hard?"

By the end of the first day of talks, we young 'uns were a bit punchy and were tossing around ideas of how to liven things up. The keeper was to have the speakers don those sumo suits and have full-contact debates.
"I disagree with your rate estimate! RAAAH!"
"You've underestimated the impact of the boundary conditions! GAAAARRR!"
"The theory you're quoting is just gossip! OOOFFF!"

Sunday, May 15, 2005

various things about church and music

Aw. I'm so flattered. I was singing in the choir at church this morning, and at Coffee Hour afterwards a guy came up to me to say hi and to say he wanted me to autograph his copy of my CD. He likes listening to it because it reminds him of the song I sang at his wife's funeral.

The church is getting a new organ installed. At the moment there's an "electronic organ"--something with an ordinary organ console, but with sound put out by speakers instead of pipes. The organist last week was on a mission to demonstrate exactly how nasty this thing is. Most of the hymns sounded like they were being played on an ice-cream truck. It was also his week for startling reharmonizations. During the last verse of every hymn he would play a different harmonization of the tune, and every now and again he'd throw in a particularly bizarre chord, and the choir would react as if we'd all been simultaneously goosed. It must have been entertaining to watch.

Today being Pentecost, we had a procession. Processions at my church are fun. Besides the crucifer, there's four people carrying candles, one with a banner, and a thurifer (as well as three clergy-folk, the dozen-or-so choristers, and an MC to shepherd us all around). The thurifer who was on duty today takes his incense-making duties very seriously. As well as swinging the pot back and forth, he was doing round-the-worlds and over-the-head figure-eights. It's kind of unnerving to watch. It's a test of your faith in Newton's Laws: do you really believe that inertia will keep the burning hot coals from spilling out onto you as he goes by, or do you flinch?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

word of the day


It gives me chills.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

May 12, 1967

Oscar Wilde is appalled by people who wash their clean laundry in public. Nevertheless, I have to take a moment to brag about my parents.

Thirty-eight years ago today, they got married. They were barely into their twenties (they'd just graduated from university, having started it early as precocious youngsters). It being 1967, the bride wore a yellow hand-crocheted dress, and the wedding photos were taken on the lawn of the Unitarian church they'd found for the occasion. They were still just kids. They freely admit that they had absolutely no idea what they were getting into.

They've kept the promises that they made that day.

...I'm trying to think of something to add to that statement. It stands by itself. It's utterly staggering.

Two things come immediately mind when I try to talk about their relationship. One is a line Mom used in one of her sermons, about how human love exists to give us a foretaste of God's love, and how she experiences God's love in her own life by means of the tender, steadfast love of her husband. (That one still makes me a little teary.) The other is Dad's habit of kissing Mom the moment he came in the door when he got home from work. I can't remember a single time, through a long career that often made him compare himself wistfully to Count Belisarius, when he let himself get too preoccupied to greet her properly.

When I start counting my blessings, sometimes it seems redundant to list anything except my parents. I didn't do anything to deserve to be born to people who would model for me whole-hearted ethical compassion, and who would show me how love can be used as the organizing principle of a life--one's own life, the life of a family, and the life of a community.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad.

family, 1975 Posted by Hello

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Mothers' Day

Mother's Day Proclamation - 1870
by Julia Ward Howe

Arise then...women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! ...

Say firmly: "...Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice." Blood does not wipe our dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace...

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient and the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Miracle Fair

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen.

An ordinary miracle:
the dead of night
the barking of invisible dogs.

One miracle out of many:
a small, airy cloud
yet it can block a large and heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder tree refected in the water,
and that it's backwards left to right
and that it grows there, crown down
and never reaches the bottom,
even though the water is shallow.

An everyday miracle:
winds weak to moderate
turning gusty in storms.

First among equal miracles:
cows are cows.

Second to none:
just this orchard
from just that seed.

A miracle without a cape and top hat:
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be:
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers,
it still has more than four.

A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.

An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable
is thinkable.

--Wislawa Szymborska

DIY rituals

A couple of weekends ago I went for a walk up East Rock, trying to clear my head after a misunderstanding with a friend. All the way up to the summit I was disturbed and upset by my obsessive thoughts. Finally, as I started heading back down, I picked up a smallish, irregularly shaped stone from the side of the path. All the way back down I held it tight in one hand: "tighter, don't relax, don't let it go, you have to hang on, you have to keep this as close as possible; it doesn't matter how much it's hurting, how the edges are digging into your hand, how stiff your fingers are getting, or how much easier these steep steps would be with two hands free to balance; you've got to hang on tight tight tight."

On the bridge at the bottom of the hill I stood for several minutes, letting the sunlight warm and soften the hard knot between my shoulder blades. I held the stone in my open hands, thinking about all of the things I've been holding onto--this fear, this grudge, that desire, that image--and finally brought the stone close to my face to whisper to it, "goodbye, stone."

I threw it into the river and watched its ripples fade.

As I walked home, I picked handfuls of the flowers that had begun to bloom along my path.

Friday, May 06, 2005

I've found myself recently fantasizing about the fall retreat at the IMS. It's a particularly ludicrous--sorry, ludricious--type of fantasy, because it can be distilled to, "Wow, won't it be great when I'm spending all my time being present in the moment? Yeah, that'll be great, when I'm just focussing on the task at hand...."

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

help with poem?

For my 12th birthday party, many long years ago, I got a book from the library: The Witches' Handbook. It was illustrated comic-book style, and it had stories and poems and various silly things. In the "How to throw a witches' party" section it had recipes for "Earthworms in Bat's Blood Sauce" (spaghetti with tomato sauce) and "Dubious Trifle" (you make "squashed flies" by soaking raisins and then sticking sliced almonds in as wings and then you put the flies around the side of the glass bowl before you make the trifle). But the bit I'm trying to remember is one of the "Witch Sayings":

Monday's witch is foul of face
Tuesday's witch is lacking grace
Wednesday's witch is long of nose
Thursday's witch has extra toes
Friday's witch.....
Saturday's witch....
But the witch that was born on the Sabbath day
Tends to smell, so keep away.

Any ideas for how to fill in the blanks?

Sunday, May 01, 2005

In this article from Salon, Richard Dawkins eloquently addresses the "debate" about evolution. I respect anyone who will insult an academic adversary to his face. It's putting in place Miss Manners' advice that there should be less thoughtless rudeness around, so that insults can be restored to their proper function of expressing contempt. I also love the way he addresses the question of how to find meaning in life without recourse to supernatural beliefs. The idea that we should treasure life because of its statistical improbability is something that the Buddha said--but in Buddhism there are all these different streams of thought and practice, some of which put great emphasis on reincarnation. (I'm not sure about this, but I think that the argument can be made that the Buddha used past and future lives as a metaphor for cause and effect, and that folk-Buddhism latched onto the concept of rebirth as a way of avoiding having death be The End.)

"Unweaving the Rainbow" specifically attacks the idea that a materialist, mechanist, naturalistic worldview makes life seem meaningless. Quite the contrary, the scientific worldview is a poetic worldview, it is almost a transcendental worldview. We are amazingly privileged to be born at all and to be granted a few decades -- before we die forever -- in which we can understand, appreciate and enjoy the universe. And those of us fortunate enough to be living today are even more privileged than those of earlier times. We have the benefit of those earlier centuries of scientific exploration. Through no talent of our own, we have the privilege of knowing far more than past centuries. Aristotle would be blown away by what any schoolchild could tell him today. That's the kind of privileged century in which we live. That's what gives my life meaning. And the fact that my life is finite, and that it's the only life I've got, makes me all the more eager to get up each morning and set about the business of understanding more about the world into which I am so privileged to have been born.