Category: Dharma


Udder relief

One of the more dif­fi­cult parts about mov­ing, for me at least, has always been the attri­tion. Deciding what’s going with me and what’s being donated — or, in some cases, sim­ply pitched out — has always been more dif­fi­cult than I think it should be.

Nowhere is this more obvi­ous than with my book col­lec­tion. It’ll come as a micro­scopic sur­prise that I have a fairly sub­stan­tial library, prob­a­bly 80% of which I’ve read. The rest is on the wait­ing list. When your library con­tains some 500 titles, that’s obvi­ously a pretty big I’ll-get-to-it-soon stack.

Why on Earth would any­one even want that many books? I used to be asked that some­times by class­mates when I was in high school. (One even com­mented, in all seri­ous­ness, “I’ve never been so bored that I had to read.” It goes with­out say­ing that she and I never dated.)

To some extent, this is my father’s influ­ence. I used to go into his study as a child and stare in utter, silent awe at the wall of books there. The col­lec­tion showed a wide range of tastes, includ­ing lit­er­a­ture, fan­tasy, and SF. The first time I read Dangerous Visions, I was about four­teen, and it was from his col­lec­tion.1 DV was not the kind of book you’d nor­mally think of a young teen read­ing, but that was how it went in my fam­ily. As long as it was a book, and wasn’t from a porn shop, there was no censorship.

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Things are not words

We will prob­a­bly never fully under­stand just why Jared Loughner decided to do what he did1 on that day in Tucson. This should actu­ally make us feel bet­ter about our­selves, when you think about it. I’d far rather be baf­fled by a spate of irra­tional killings than have a clue as to the rea­son­ing behind them.2

This hasn’t stopped an imme­di­ate and intense response from quite a lot of peo­ple, in quite a few cor­ners, each appar­ently try­ing to simul­ta­ne­ously absolve them­selves of guilt while assign­ing it to oth­ers. Ironically, the argu­ment about incen­di­ary lan­guage in polit­i­cal dis­course has itself become quite incen­di­ary. So it goes.

Rather than seek to attach blame to one “side” or another,3 I’d like to dis­cuss the lan­guage we use reg­u­larly in dis­cus­sion of any kind, which is fre­quently over-​​the-​​top and improper for our pur­poses. By “improper” I do not nec­es­sar­ily mean insult­ing, offen­sive, and so on; instead, I sim­ply mean the wrong set of words.

For exam­ple, many years ago, Hostess adver­tised their Twinkies and other baked can­dies as being “whole­some”. I believe I know what whole­some means, and it is not a word that I would apply to some­thing made almost entirely of sugar and so pumped with preser­v­a­tives that, assum­ing its pack­ag­ing remains undam­aged, it has an essen­tially infi­nite shelf life. Usage of the word whole­some is, here, improper. We might call Twinkies fla­vor­ful; we might call them con­ve­nient; we might call them tasty. We would be hard-​​pressed to defend call­ing them whole­some.

This is a good exam­ple of decep­tive label­ing. It could be argued that, since Twinkies do not con­tain cyanide, they are tech­ni­cally whole­some; how­ever, whole­some is not a syn­onym for non­lethal. Using a word that is con­ven­tion­ally asso­ci­ated with healthy cheap­ens the value of that word, and robs it of effec­tive mean­ing — par­tic­u­larly if that word is being used to describe some­thing that, eaten in any­thing but extreme mod­er­a­tion, is in no way healthy at all.

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Letting go of renunciation

One time, many years ago, a monk was walk­ing along in the for­est. Suddenly a rob­ber leapt out and demanded money, food, and so on. The monk, of course, had noth­ing to give; this infu­ri­ated the rob­ber, who began rant­ing about all the trav­el­ers he’d beaten, how dan­ger­ous he was, etc. The monk lis­tened, unfazed, for so long that even­tu­ally the rob­ber became impressed. He wanted to know how the monk could be so appar­ently at ease in the face of such dire threat, when the rob­ber him­self — who was in a posi­tion of power — seemed unable to let go of his anger.

Eventually the rob­ber con­fessed that steal­ing was an ingrained part of his per­son­al­ity. “Wherever I am, no mat­ter who I’m with, when I see some­thing, my urge is to steal it. It doesn’t mat­ter whether it’s some­thing I need; just to see some­one pos­sess­ing any­thing makes me want it for myself. I’ve actu­ally tried to stop steal­ing, but I just can’t. I know I’ll be caught one day and exe­cuted, but I sim­ply can’t help myself. Is there any­thing I can do to make it stop?”

The monk pon­dered for a moment. “When you get the urge to steal, sim­ply be aware of it,” he said.

The rob­ber blinked. “That’s all?”

Yes, that’s all.”

Bemused, the rob­ber parted ways with the monk.

A year or so later, they met up again on the road. The monk didn’t rec­og­nize his one­time adver­sary; the man had con­verted, and was now a monk as well — no longer a rob­ber. “Somehow,” he said, “just being aware of my urge to steal helped it to fade and lose its power over me. How did you know it would work?”

The monk shrugged. “Every lust is a thought,” he said, and in that moment the for­mer rob­ber was enlightened.


These sto­ries always seem to be about wan­der­ing monks. I don’t actu­ally recall the full thread of this one, and I can’t seem to find the ref­er­ence any­where; the monk might have been Bodhidharma, who was the itin­er­ant Buddhist that brought the prac­tice to China.1 It really doesn’t mat­ter what the par­tic­u­lars are, because the essence of the story is what I’m focus­ing on here.

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The dharma of Wilson

Hands up, every­one who’s seen Castaway, the movie with Tom Hanks about the guy who ends up stranded for years on a deserted island. That’s a lot of you — good.

If you recall, Hanks was on a deliv­ery air­craft, some­thing sim­i­lar to DHL or FedEx. The plane crashed, and he was the only sur­vivor. After the crash, he man­aged to make it to a small island in the mid­dle of nowhere. He started going through the freight that washed ashore along with him, look­ing for any­thing that could help him sur­vive. Among many things, he found a vol­ley­ball, of the Wilson brand. That vol­ley­ball turned out to be one of the most sig­nif­i­cant ele­ments to the story, to his sur­vival, and — I think — became a fas­ci­nat­ing enquiry into the nature of mind.

What began hap­pen­ing, you may remem­ber, was that he started talk­ing to the vol­ley­ball. At first it was clearly some­thing that made him feel fool­ish, but over time it became so reg­u­lar that he was hav­ing lengthy, com­pli­cated con­ver­sa­tions with Wilson. Rationally, we can rec­og­nize just how weird such behav­ior is — after all, if some­one started act­ing that way at the office, treat­ing a pen­cil sharp­ener as a per­sonal con­fi­dante, we’d quickly become wor­ried about his san­ity — but in the case of one per­son stranded in total iso­la­tion, it might seem a bit more sensible.

We’re social ani­mals. In one form or another, we like human con­tact. Sometimes the con­tact isn’t what we’d pre­fer, but by and large it’s some­thing we need on a psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional level. One of the worst pun­ish­ments that a pris­oner can be sub­jected to is soli­tary con­fine­ment; we even pun­ish our chil­dren with time-​​outs, iso­lat­ing them briefly from inter­ac­tion with all oth­ers. People locked into sen­sory depri­va­tion tanks actu­ally begin hal­lu­ci­nat­ing after less than an hour, partly because the stimulus-​​hungry mind ends up all alone with itself and, lack­ing any­thing to keep itself occu­pied, it begins mak­ing things up.

So, in a mind left with total iso­la­tion and some­thing that looks vaguely like a human face, it’s not dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that face becom­ing more and more real.

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Gone altogether beyond

A lit­tle while ago, I was a vol­un­teer shop­per for Code 3/​Clothe the Kids (third year for me). This is a local char­ity that exists because of the com­bined efforts of the KPD, the KFD, the Kiwanis, and oth­ers. Disadvantaged kids are taken shop­ping for clothes by vol­un­teer adults, who have a pre­de­ter­mined bud­get. The pur­pose is to ensure that the kids have some decent out­fits with­out being sub­ject to undue parental influence.

That lat­ter require­ment became clear in years past; orig­i­nally, some par­ents would take the kids’ clothes, get a refund, and turn around and spend the money on cig­a­rettes and booze (true story). The sys­tem is con­sid­er­ably less exploitable now, but attempts to work around the lim­its still get made, every year.

This year, “my” kid was a boy of about eight. It started off well; he seemed ami­able and not par­tic­u­larly shy, and picked out some shirts, undies, shoes, and other neces­si­ties. Then came the moment all the kids love: The troll down the toy aisle.

The rules are fairly clear. The major­ity of the bud­get is to be spent on cloth­ing, with only ten to fif­teen dol­lars or so spent on the gew­gaws. “My” kid, who seemed at first to have such a good oper­a­tional grasp of the pro­ce­dure, quickly lost track of what we were doing.

He wanted a Nerf dart gun, one of the high-​​end ones that ran about $40. Well, no, too expen­sive. All right then, how about this MP3 player? $30. No, sorry, still over the bud­get. Okay, well, here’s a radio-​​controlled Humvee. $40, and we’re back up to way over the line.

Back to the elec­tron­ics, where he con­fided that his dad had asked that he pick up a CD boom­box for his and his sister’s bed­room. In addi­tion to the cost — yes, again over the allowance — it became clear that he was now oper­at­ing under a parent’s instruc­tion, which is a no-​​no for the shop­ping day.

I worked with him a lit­tle about bud­gets, explain­ing that the toy allowance was only so large. He could have one thing that was just that large, or two smaller things that, added together, were that large; or three lit­tler things that added up, and so on. Explained in those terms, he seemed to get what I was say­ing, and made a counter-​​offer: If we put back some of the clothes, can we get the radio or the Humvee then?

Clever lad. He lacked fore­sight, but he under­stood the idea of bargaining.

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Green tea

In recent days, here in Arizona, there’s been dis­cus­sion about pri­va­ti­za­tion of pris­ons — hardly any­thing new — and state parks. The argu­ment seems to be two-​​pronged: Private, for-​​profit indus­tries tend to run effi­ciently; and by pass­ing main­te­nance and facil­ity costs off to com­pa­nies, we’re able to free up funds in the tax bud­get which could be used for other things — or pos­si­bly not. In prin­ci­ple, taxes could sim­ply be reduced instead.

To turn our atten­tion to the lat­ter argu­ment first, Arizona has been cut­ting its state bud­get, steadily, for some time now. It’s cut so com­pletely that recently, AHCCCS ter­mi­nated pay­ing for organ trans­plants and, inci­den­tally, the lives of a few of its own cit­i­zens. (Death panel, indeed.) Large por­tions of state-​​mandated sys­tems, such as the courts, have found them­selves reduced to less than a bare-​​bones bud­get, with only a few offi­cials being forced to han­dle the case­loads of entire counties.

We’ve also done away with rest stops, and for a while the DPS ter­mi­nated its heli­copter ser­vice in the Kingman area, essen­tially leav­ing all of Mohave County with­out any kind of aer­ial search-​​and-​​rescue or law-​​enforcement ability.

However, it’s worth not­ing that cut­ting these ser­vices has not, in fact, led to a reduc­tion in taxes — so where has the money dis­ap­peared to? Is it really pos­si­ble that the state is run­ning at such a deficit that years of sys­tem­atic bud­get and ser­vice cuts have had no effect at all on its oper­a­tion? If so, it might be prac­ti­cal to sug­gest that no amount of bud­get cut­ting will actu­ally do any­thing to keep the state’s bal­ance in the black.

This con­clu­sion seem­ingly leaves us with two choices: Raising taxes, or privatizing.

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The ques­tion of whether gays and les­bians should be allowed to serve in the US armed forces has been bandied about for years. You can always gauge how close we are to an elec­tion cycle by how often this topic sur­faces; it’s one of those things — as with flag burn­ing or post­ing the Decalogue in pub­lic places — that’s sure to get peo­ple riled. When peo­ple get riled, they tend to vote.

The cur­rent pol­icy, charm­ingly called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, came into being dur­ing the Clinton years. It was seen as a sort of com­pro­mise at the time, but for those who wanted the ban lifted entirely on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, it was dif­fi­cult to see exactly where the com­pro­mise was. Succinctly, dur­ing enlist­ment, you used to be asked, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a prac­tic­ing homo­sex­ual?“1 Now, they don’t ask. You don’t have to tell. That was the compromise.

The other side of the pol­icy is that if a sol­dier later reveals a non­hetero­sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, he or she can be tried under court mar­tial and issued a dis­charge, because homo­sex­ual behav­ior is against the mil­i­tary code of con­duct. However, even reveal­ing the pres­ence of a lover, while remain­ing celi­bate when away from that per­son, is also grounds for dis­charge. The sub­tle mes­sage is that merely think­ing about engag­ing in homo­sex­ual con­duct is against the rules. Freedom of thought is thus quashed. This seems unrea­son­able in almost any light, and arguably goes against the spirit of our national founders’ intent.

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