Archive for October, 2008

‘Empty’ Words

Friday, October 31st, 2008

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING FRIDAY

If you’ve ever spent more than 10 seconds with Buddhist teachings you’ve come across them.

The words.

Buddhism has a complex language and dense vocabulary that work together in a rich interplay to create a world of concepts that has no toehold in the seen world. For that reason, it rivals philosophy for complicated concepts that require page after page of descriptions. Yet many of these words aim to describe not meaning, but lack of precise meaning: that is, emptiness.

It’s not for the feint of heart. For that reason, Jack Kerouac, with his trademark verve and energy, put together a compendium of ideas, definitions and examples from his Buddhist studies. It was published in 1997 as Some of the Dharma, and at more than 400 pages, it’s a dense book … and as Kerouac says, only “some.”

Let’s start with the term karma. It’s part of our ordinary language, but what does it really mean — and how is it commonly used?

In the Buddhist sense, karma has to do with the sum of actions taken by a person, not just in this lifetime, but over several lifetimes — forever. That explains why bad things happen to good people — and vice versa — there are ghosts in our closets.

In popular usage, karma usually refers to performing acts of kindness, doing right by other people, helping out dogs and defenseless animals, with the hoped for possibility that something good will come back to you. Not a bad way to live.

Call me a true believer of karma. Once in the early 90s, in a new job, new town, not a lot of money, I accidentally walked out of a store without paying for my chocolate-covered raisins. Ka-ching! I thought. I win!!

That night, my car was broken into. Ka-I-ching!! Karma. I pay for everything now, and if I find a dime on the street, usually I’ll either leave it or give it to someone else.

Karma brings up the idea of reincarnation, which to the Buddhists is an integral part of the relative, or physical, world and the authentic, or unseen, one.

There is the concept that at death, a person’s soul or consciousness passes into another life form. To have human form is a supreme achievement, showing that a person’s past live has been noble and good. That’s why His Holiness the Dalai Lama is so greatly respectful of any other human being, even the Chinese leaders who torment him and his fellow Tibetans.

Yet even for those of us who don’t ascribe precisely to this idea can find meaning in the concept of rebirth and reincarnation. In my nearly half a century, I have been many people — school teacher, graduate student, 4-year-old, 14-year-old drama queen, moody 20-year-old, preppy (sorry, it was the ’80s) and waitress.

These incarnations are episodes and experiences that are long gone, not to return (especially the waitress days, but out of karma-awareness, I always leave big tips!)

There are other terms, for other Figuratively Speaking posts — paramita, tathagata, buddhadharma, ahimsa, parinama, samadhi ….

TO BE CONTINUED

Survivor: Vista

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

TECH THURSDAY

So I’m feeling all proud of myself for buying a new computer with Vista last summer — people, the 64-bit version!! — and Microsoft up and rolls out a new version of Windows.

Well, I’m not going anywhere.

I spent several days researching new laptops and this one has 4 GB RAM — that’s what Vista calls a decent meal. I’m fond of the Aero design … that gives me translucent borders around my panels as I work. I love the ability to have 20 windows open at a time … while I listen to iTunes … and play Majong …

Much has been made of the security warnings. Well, darn it, I like the feeling that my computer is reaching out for help. When you work by yourself all day long the way many of us writers do, it’s nice to have someone to talk with. I feel needed by my computer. There’s nothing wrong with that.

I also like being able to flip through my active window panels. OK, so I rarely have time to fiddle with it, but it’s a great way to sift through files when I think of taking advantage of it.

Did I mention sidebar? Yep, love having a clock and CPU meter.

With tongue firmly in cheek, this non-geek’s t-shirt says, VISTA PRIDE.

TOMORROW: FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING FRIDAY

The British Library

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

A friend sent along a note about the British Library‘s release of new recordings of British and American writers. Feeling quite uninformed (as I often do with this well-read fellow), I made a visit to the site to see what all the noise was about.

What a surprise! This site contains sound recordings, as well as books you can browse. The sound archive is a vast collection, including sounds from around the world, historic sounds and even pop music.

Visiting the site is free, but a new disc for sale merits mention. The Spoken Word: British Writers and American Writers. It’s a three-CD set and has rare early recordings by F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolfe, and P.G. Wodehouse talking about Jeeves and Wooster.

There’s Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speaking about Sherlock Holmes.

Back at the site, be sure to visit the manuscript collection. There are music manuscripts, sacred and Indian art, and even the Magna Carta.

Happy Feet, Happy Heart

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

Today, some good news: After 12 weeks of lessons, patients from my instructor, Anna,, and many, many humiliations, at last I am tap dancing!!

boytap.jpg

I’ve hung around, caught glimpses of my bumbling self in that dance studio mirror … you know the place … mirrors cover the entire wall … there’s no escape!! … but I’ve managed not to give up, despite what seemed an impossible undertaking.

Through sheer force of will, I’ve finally managed to master to the simple warm-ups … shuffles, flaps, pull-backs … and even some of the combination steps … a five-six-seven-eight-shuffle ball-change-flap-heel-toe-brush-hop-stomp …

By the end of class, it’s true I’m overwhelmed and basically fall apart, no longer following the steps, but it’s actually fun!!

Is there a lesson here? I’m sure there is … even when something seems impossible, just keep at it … my efforts at tap were flailing, ridiculous and as my grandmother would say, pitiful.

I dreamed of tap dancing for years before I took my first adult lessons about 20 years ago … at one point I was in a class with children, 8, 9, 10 year-olds … I gave up because I never got anywhere … last year I bought some real Broadway tap shoes and they sat in the box for more than 14 months … there on top of my file cabinet … where I could look at them … and dream … but I was always too busy.

At last I started again earlier this summer, and at first, believed that because of my mental composition (not very coordinated? no sense of rhythm?) I would never manage to dance … but now I’m hoofing. Slowly, and bumpily, but hoofing nonetheless.

Stocks, banks, business indicators, global markets — they are claiming our attention these days, but what are these things, anyway? It’s the private, personal joys that define a life, and by keeping the faith … persisting … believing … and, in the end, just showing up, that life gives us real gifts.

The Seriously Gifted Person

Monday, October 27th, 2008

In the most recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Colin Harrison says, “The one thing that really should be said about David Foster Wallace is that this was a once-in-a-century talent.” Harrison was Wallace’s friend and editor; the quote appears in an incredibly moving feature by David Lipsky. (You can read an excerpt here.)

Mr. Lipsky has done a remarkable job bringing to life the depths of this creative person, who struggled with depression unsuccessfully until his death, by suicide, last month. I wasn’t aware of the writer’s complexity, as a person or as a writer before reading the RS article. Leave it to Rolling Stone to have some of the best writing anywhere.

Mr. Wallace was “very fragile,” in his own words, but so full of original thoughts that sometimes he feared his head might explode, and for that reason, usually wore a bandana on his head. He was the author of Infinite Jest, a magnum opus, as well as nonfiction and fiction, notable for its detail and thoughts that race, as his own mind often did, through all the possibilities.

Unfortunately, he experienced clinical, medical depression to a degree few of will ever know. It’s not just sadness; rather, it’s the unbearable weight of days, of existence, of breath that comes over some people like a disease.

Of course the other side of this disease is often striking clarity — the ability to see the world with sparkling precision — and that was certainly true for Mr. Wallace.

The excerpt linked above is just the surface and while it’s still on the stands, it’s worth buying this issue of RS just for Mr. Lipsky’s feature. Or go ahead and subscribe; you may not always agree with the articles or reviews, but you’re hard pressed to find better writing these days.

FD returns Monday!

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Hello out there in Fiction Dailyland!! Because of events beyond my control, Fiction Daily’s Tech Thursday and Figuratively Speaking Friday will return next week.

FD should return on Monday. Have a great weekend.

— MB

Brothers, Sisters

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

One of the first messages you’ll read in most books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama is his recommendation that we all remain faithful to the religion of our family, our childhood, our culture.

When I first read that line, I thought: What, you don’t want me as a Buddhist?

At the same time, it was incredibly refreshing. No pressure to convert!! No doom of damnation hanging over me!!

Having grown up in the Bible Belt I was used to people trying to “save” me. Never mind that I was baptized as a Christian; there are hundreds of people on any given day trying to tell me, well, where to go.

So HH the Dalai Lama basically sets us free from requirements of terrestrial religion. But he does not release us from our obligation to respect other living beings and to make sure we cause no harm (ahimsa). He commonly refers to his audience as “Dear Brothers and Sisters.”

He asks us to be humble and modest, and never to take credit for our good deeds; but rather to be mindful of the many good people who have gone before us and who will come after us.

One of the meditations he recommends is to imagine ourselves at our worst, our most clutching and greedy (Yes, try it sometimes. It’s quite humbling).

We imagine this greedy self to one side of us, then, at the other side, we imagine someone who’s desperately poor, starving, homeless or sick.

The first time I did this mediation I nearly wept. It is still one of the most grounding meditations I can do.

In keeping with His Holiness’s guidance, I have not given up my Christian faith. Rather, it is now a larger spiritual practice, multi-dimensional, because it includes meditations on compassion. Larger in meaning because I now include great teachers like Buddha, Zoroaster and other prophets in my meditations on good. More profound because I think on great leaders like St. Frances, Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin King and Nelson Mandela.

Recently, attending church, I have found new enlightenment in the sanctuary, among my companions in faith worshiping together. This connection arises, doubtless, because I better see our unity in light of the struggling monks in Tibet, China and Burma, who are willing to be jailed and beaten for their faith.

I attend the Episcopal Church because I believe we are deeply faithful to the teachings of Christ. My church welcomes people of all backgrounds and walks of life, and have ordained an openly gay minister, which for me, represents Christ’s instructions to include and embrace each other.

Having spent many hours with my Buddhist books, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings last year and his books regularly; and my readings of Old and New Testament scripture, I no longer see conflict among them, only an ever-growing picture of the human desire for the divine.

A Prayer

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

Today, some words from a prayer by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. You can find the entire poem in The Essential Dalai Lama, (Viking, 2005).

I believe we can feel deep affinity and kinship as human beings with the People of the Land of the Snows. In this poem they represent our unified struggle to remain peaceful and compassionate in the face of brute strength and the bullying of power and wealth.

A PRAYER

… Please consider the truth of my anguished pleas…

O holders of the Dharma: scholars
and realized practitioners;

May your tenfold virtuous practice prevail.

Humble sentient beings, tormented
by sufferings without cease,

Completely suppressed by seemingly endless
and terribly tense, negative deeds,

May all their fears from unbearable war, famine,
and disease be pacified,

To freely breathe an ocean of happiness and well-being,
and particularly the pious people

of the Land of Snows who, through various means,

Area mercilessly destroyed by barbaric hordes
on the side of darkness,

Kindly let the power of your compassion arise,
to quickly stem the flow of blood and tears.

Modern Prophet

Monday, October 20th, 2008

One year ago today (it was a Saturday about 5 a.m.) I said good-bye to the kitties and pups and departed on a milestone voyage.

I was heading to Atlanta, a journey that was part road trip, part holy pilgrimage. I was going to see His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama speak during two days of teaching.

There’s no doubt I was excited, but there was a lot of fear, too. I worried about disappointment; worried he would be self-absorbed or fussy, the way some celebrities are. A false prophet; a sham.

From the moment I saw him, I knew he was the real deal. He emanated genuine modesty and compassion, wearing flip-flops on bare feet, along with the shapeless sheets that were his robes.

For two days he spoke, always keeping to a schedule, never using notes, exploring with remarkable clarity the depths of Buddhist ideals and human nature. His mind has the complexity of a labyrinth; yet he is all heart.

He received accolades, honors and unending praise that would make anyone uncomfortable at least — and egomaniacal at worst.

All he said was, “I’m going to get a big head!” and roared with his trademark laugh.

It’s hard to imagine a saint walking among us, but I believe he is.

The Scheme of Things

Friday, October 17th, 2008

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

OK, so I have a secret identity. In a parallel world I am a French nerd. In junior high and high school, and later in college and grad school, French was The Great Escape. As a 14-year old in first-year French class, I salivated over the music and painting, dreamed of visiting Versailles and the City of Light. You can imagine … I spent my childhood playing in tobacco barns … teenage years in eastern North Carolina … you get the picture.

Eventually I lived in my beloved France and treasure those years as a French nana, or gal, and friends with my copains and a few guys, or mecs.

Still, while my high-school classmates were enjoying a rich social life … boyfriends, cheerleading, football games and your basic teenage-fun-type activities, I was conjugating all 16 forms of irregular verbs in an old-school exercise known as the schema.

Schema in French gives us the word “schematic” and “scheme” — but in the langue natale, it refers to the laborious outline of verbs in all tenses, forms and modes. The conditional and subjunctive, too … and if you’ve ever studied French, you know the subjunctive mode makes grown mecs cry for their mommies.

So, looking at this word in our native language shows a common origin in Romance languages and our Anglo-Saxon one: Scheme comes from the Latin schema from the Greek skhema for form or figure.

In the 16th-century, the word was used to describe a diagram of the position of celestial objects, giving rise to the shorter forms, diagram and outline.

Of course we’re all familiar with the more pejorative use of the word as in What are those office malcontents scheming now?

A schemer is a person who is involved in making secret or underhanded plans, and is often associated with pettiness and meanness.

Now, I have to admit, I actually like the word scheme. It implies deep thought and planning. Never mind that it has acquired the negative connotation. Besides, sometimes we all need to do a little scheming. Especially when we’re making up for lost time.