Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Yesterday, Dec. 12, 2017, was election day in Alabama. Last night, with their votes, the good people of Alabama chose dignity and reason over bigotry and ignorance. You may feel, as I do, that almost every word coming out of Roy Moore's mouth is nothing but a loud and stinky fart. But you also may feel that many Christians who support him are hypocrites. I do not. In their minds they are God-fearing Christians. And they are dangerous. Moore's reported lust for young women is not the issue here. The other things he stands for are the real issue, things these Christians support, things that the Bible specifically condemns as sinful. I think a little historical clarity about the Bible could help put a lid on much of this. But make no mistake. The views many Americans hold are based on scripture that in today's world must be called homophobic, misogynistic, racist, chauvinistic, and just plain paranoid.
Homosexuality and bestiality are held up by God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as actions that can put you in everlasting hell after your die. Why is that? I cannot examine God's mind, but I can imagine why a small group of people living in the Palestinian desert between about 1000 B.C. and 800 A.D. would not want men to "waste their seed" on other men or in the butts of animals instead of helping women bring more people into the group. Making as many babies as possible would be the aim. If you happened to be a gay man back then, you would be required to have sex with a woman, even if you had to do so with closed eyes and clenched teeth. But you could father a child.
As for the sex life of a woman In Biblical times we don't hear much. We know that girls could be wed to older men, who often already had other wives. That was fine. Perfectly in line with the aim of making a small group stronger. But what about lesbians? Women who naturally were sexually attracted to women. The Bible doesn't say anything about them. I suppose men could have sex with them against their will (we call that rape), but in those days women had even less power over men, much less their own bodies, than they do today. As one of them found out, they could even be turned into a pillar of salt just for turning around to look back fondly on a place the group was leaving.
Another hot-button issue today is abortion. Until the 1970's women had no choice, abortion was not an option, at least a safe one. Abortion is as old as the Garden of Eden, or at least the Stone Age. But there was no knowledge of how to do it safely. My mother was one of eighteen children. In addition, her mother, my grandmother, had two miscarriages, or so my mother told me. My parents spent the first 17 years of their marriage going to college and taking care of her siblings, before deciding to have me, their only child. (I never asked what sort of birth-control they practiced, in case you were wondering.)
My mother says she felt sorry for women ("Catholics" she thought) who kept having babies. But she felt sorrier for women who had horrible abortions, due to dangerous home remedies or physical methods, such as throwing themselves down stairs (think "Leave Her to Heaven" with Gene Tierney) or back-alley butcher-shop surgeries. The Bible doesn't mention abortions, but the Pro-life movement today condemns women who have abortions (and their abortionists) to hell, making this issue as Christian as it gets, with Evangelical Christians stepping in to do God's work.
Times have changed. I remember how "bad" girls in my junior and senior high school classes, who found themselves in the "family" way, suddenly disappeared for a year. If they returned, they were whispered about, especially by boys. Most Catholic kids attended the one Catholic church school in the little Oklahoma town I'm from. I assume Catholic girls graduated, got married, and had lots of children. So looking back, I realize it was only Protestant girls in my schools who were sent away to abort their "illegitimate" babies. Anyway, we Protestants hated Catholics.
In addition to homosexuality and abortion, there is something else on the right-wing Christian agenda today, albeit under the radar, so to speak. I'm talking about bigotry. People today, including Christians, hate bigotry. Nobody wants to be a bigot. At least I don't know of anybody who is not against bigotry. This is tricky. People I grew up with were all white, except for the black women who cleaned our house and the Indians at Ft. Sill. (My parents were in charge of the Ft. Sill Indian School.) At the same time, blacks and Indians were poor, and as a child I saw how whites spoke to them differently. But by the age of five or six my best friends were Native Americans (playmates and old men who taught me secrets about the natural world) and African American women (maids who taught a spoiled white kid how to behave.) I secretly began to despise the bigotry around me.
My own family was almost an exception. The prejudices I saw were subtle, but undeniable. I worked one Christmas in a menswear store owned by one of two Jewish families in town, and talked for hours to my employer. He seemed to know about everything. This prepared me for my experiences in New York, from ages 14-17, as a part-time student at the old Julliard School, where I was taught by brilliant musicians, many of whom had escaped the holocaust. Their stories about inhuman behavior took on fuller meaning for me over the years. In college in Texas I learned not to talk about it too much, but married life there and in Chicago (for graduate studies) taught me how to spot bigotry wherever it raised its ugly head. I became a lifelong protester of inequality. The one thing I cannot abide is a belief that human beings are different and therefore should be discriminated against -- on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, culture, intelligence, sexuality, and all other things we have no control over.
To bring things closer to home, I must mention the 50+ years I have spent developing a reputation as a specialist in Japanese art, history and religion. My doctoral research was centered on Japan's Momoyama period, involving the written and pictorial material in Buddhist temples built in Kyoto during the Keicho period, between about 1590-1620. I was particularly interested in Emperor Gomizuno-o, whose patronage of Zen priests and artists (many of whom were given the title of Zen priests) is well known.
In the course of that research I was told by my Kyoto University professors that to do a good job I would have to train in Zen temples myself and know Buddhist iconography backwards and forwards. During some four decades of study and training, I finished a PhD (1970), was ordained as a Zen priest (1980), and retired in 2004 after holding teaching positions at three American universities and one in Japan. This has made me quite aware of cultural differences. Japan was a great teacher not only for me but for my wife and our two sons. I can barely remember the time during WWII when Japan was my enemy. But I do remember, and that memory clearly inspired me to become what I am now. To think of the Japanese as scary brutes in WWII, defeated victims of the war, or as colleagues and teachers makes it impossible for me to categorize them. They are my fellow human beings.
Last but not least, the Moore and Trump defenders are suspicious of science and the media. They are of one mind on climate change. It's a hoax. Even with all the fires and blizzards going on in our own country right now, and the melting ice in the cold regions of our world, they defend religion and deny scientific proof that we are the culprits in raising the world's oceans and precipitating earthquakes with our extractions of fuels and minerals. White isolationists (aka nationalists) are crawling out of their hiding places at this particular time in history to thrust us all back into the dark ages. Most all of these things on their agenda in fact have to do with religion, mostly within the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, where even regarding each other, still, after all these centuries, bigotry reigns supreme.
People with such beliefs are like magnets to me: I cannot wait to sit down with them and try to bring them to their senses. I do not see them as hypocrites. They are Christians who claim to live by Biblical texts they haven't really studied, are against homosexuality, abortion, and most scientific explanations of phenomena. In short, they are bigots wrapping themselves in a myth about goodness over evil a la "Star Wars". To hell with that. We all have good and evil in us. They do not exist outside us. The more we explore our own demons and angels the sooner a peaceful outcome can emerge. Most importantly, we need to spend all the time we have on earth realizing how fortunate we are to be here, together, using all the technology and wisdom that is available to us now. History need not repeat itself, but we damn sure need to heed its lessons as we move forward.
Out of the forty-eight stories about ancient Chinese Zen masters in the classic known in Japanese as the Mumonkan, or "Gateless Gate" -- which is used as a textbook for "koan training" in many Zen temples in Japan -- my favorite is the fifth one, known as the 11th Zen Patriarch's "Story of the Man-Up-A-Tree." That quaint English translation always makes me laugh, even though it is accurate, because in this story "up a tree" really does mean much more than just a man sitting in a tree! This is the story that in some ways is the one I live by, or try to. Rather than repeat it here in one of its many translations, I feel like giving the account that's in my heart, the one that keeps me in line (and cannot be found anywhere else.)
Once there was a baby born without arms and legs. His parents loved him dearly, and taught him everything they knew about the world. They were his arms and legs, but when they died there was nobody to care for him. He learned to scoot around on the ground just by twisting and rolling his body around from one place to another. Outside his house he had to watch out for animals that could harm him and children who teased him and used him for their own amusement. But he drank water from a nearby spring and ate enough wild plants to keep himself alive. Every night he had vivid dreams about all sorts of things.
His situation may have made him have to learn everything about everything for himself. In any case, people began to come around to ask him questions about life in general. They began to help him do everyday things and in return he helped them understand every mystery. Everyone in the village loved him very much. Everything was going well, but as time went by, and he grew old, he became even more helpless. One night some drunks came to his house and decided it would be fun to torture him a little bit. They took turns rolling him down a nearby hill, and laughed when he made grunting sounds and loud cries as he bounced against rocks on his way down.
Finally, one of them had the idea of seeing what he would do if they took him up a very steep hill and hung him with a rope around his body from a tree that was growing out of the side of a cliff. When they grew tired of that, one of them had the bright idea of seeing how long the armless legless man could hang from the tree limb just by his teeth. After awhile they decided he might be able to hang on forever, so they ran into the village and told everyone to come and watch. A crowd of people gathered at the foot of the cliff looking up at the spectacle.
All his life the armless legless man had had vivid dreams every night. While he was hanging there from the tree branch, he could hear the crowd below, and dreams began to fill his head even while he was awake. People were shouting, "We know you can't hold on forever, and that you will die when you fall. But please tell us, before you fall to your death, what is the most important thing about life? Why are we born? What happens after we die?" In his dream he saw his parents. They had never appeared in his dreams before. But here they were. And they began to speak to him, saying, "You must answer them, son! And of course when you open your mouth you will fall and die. Just make sure that whatever you say to them will be soothing, like healing ointment on their wounds, and not like ground glass in their eyes." At that the armless legless one opened his mouth and spoke and died, and the people went away happy.
So what the hell did he say? I guess we all have to ask ourselves the same question. What did the armless legless man say on the way down? (Now we're really up a tree!) If you try to answer in his voice (as any Zen teacher will expect you to do), you will quickly conclude that there is not much you can say that will not offend or please someone. Offending and pleasing are not the same things, however, when you are talking about real life and death matters. This koan, therefore, is one of the best. Good luck!
Note: Zen koans recorded in texts were systematically illustrated by priest-painters in East Asia for at least 900 years. Many of them are in museums and private collections. But apparently none of the ones illustrating Case Five have survived. Based on my own efforts at calligraphy and painting, I have tried for at least two decades to render this koan in an ink painting myself. Nothing I've done so far satisfies me. But you better believe I'm still trying. I've just about run out of time realizing the man-up-a-tree koan in my own life. That's an on-going failure.
Monday, July 3, 2017
RIGHT OR RESPONSIBILITY
Many friends tell me to my face or in print that healthcare is not a right for Americans. I say it is a right for every human being. My friends don't agree. Many of them are against any kind of government healthcare program. They defend their position by claiming that people in this country of the brave and free have the responsibility to work hard and take care of the cost of their own healthcare. That side of the argument says that many poor sick people in America are just lazy and take advantage of social programs already in place. That seems to go against everything I know about human nature, history, economic conditions, medical science, and plain old luck.
I'm not ready to let people die on the street, as they used to in many parts of the world, if they were weak and penniless. I have to believe that the first humans living in caves instinctively believed that animals should be killed, usually with a rock, and eaten. Pretty soon they treated strangers as enemies and decided they should also be hit in the head with a rock. The biggest rock killed the most people, winning the day. Later they discovered how to make weapons out of rock, chiseling sharp blades and arrow heads. The best man wins must have been the lesson of thousands of years of human history. Many Americans still think so. Donald Trump is surely a case in point.
But he is by no means alone. American parents, especially fathers, urge their sons to stand up for themselves. Get in there and fight, they say. Don't be a sissy. My own case is so unlike that. It was no secret that I was a fat little sissy, a spoiled (I say much-loved) only child who played the piano and hated violence of any kind, even in sports. My parents protected me from any bullying I encountered by confronting the bullies (and sometimes their parents) with truly frightening consequences if they didn't leave me alone. So in a way the urge to strike out at strangers was alive and well in my parents. Looking back on it, such primitive instincts were in me, too. I think I never doubted my superiority to my tormentors, and secretly dreamed of killing all of them in the most gruesome ways the human mind has ever concocted.
Dreaming of how to kill others is nevertheless not the same thing as doing it. Tripping lightly over history from caves to castles, I can see how advanced weapons and a monetary system soon took the place of rocks, in the hands of people who feared outsiders and used tribal loyalties and religions to maintain their own superiority over others. The dance of the wealthy over the poor became the only dance in town, all over the world. Music for the dance was heard in small groups and large groups alike. Each municipality placed masters over servants, in a pattern that was repeated everywhere in counties, provinces, and nation states. Masters became masters through wealth and power that rendered servants helpless to resist. Wars often rearranged the master/servant configurations, with kings suddenly reduced to slaves, and vice versa.
Not until modern times did people question the old law, that the strong should win. The ancient Greeks had a great notion about justice and how it might be achieved in society, but even they had slaves. The idea was reborn in what we call the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but it took the toppling of lots of emperors and kings before the 18th-19th- century revolutions in the name of liberty were successful. Our own Thomas Jefferson put it best in his 1776 declaration that begins, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..." The hope in that statement was clouded, even at that time, and we've been trying to remove those clouds ever since.
We've pretty much done away with the rule of dictators, but not entirely. The most outstanding are in Africa. Some that remain are presidents of republics. The Russian Federation is listed as a "federal semi-presidential republic," according to Wikipedia, which I think means Putin is largely in charge of everything. The Russians we met in Moscow and St. Petersburg seem to adore him and blame all the problems they encountered after the fall of communism on democracy. Of course, such modern imperial governments as England, Sweden and Japan have beloved royal families that have very limited power and, in any case, generally follow the dictates of the voting public. Representative government is the enlightened approach to keeping people free in today's world.
Communism, the Great Notion of the 20th century, failed because it took away peoples' freedoms in order to make them equal. Marx and Lenin would frown at the few communist governments still operating today, because they are shot through with liberal features of democracy. The flag of democracy is flying high today, with each nation putting customs, religious laws, natural resources, and old grievances together in its national identity. Some people want free markets to govern us all, but that is too close to the dog-eat-dog paradigm of human history to satisfy me.
The level playing field is a feature of democracy. Everyone in any society starts with a chance to develop interests and talents that can contribute to the fullest development of society. Good health and healthcare is part of that chance in modern society. From natal care to death, each person deserves -- has the right -- to be in the best physical and mental health to participate in nation-building. If I am born with a medical problem, or develop a chronic ailment like cancer, I deserve to have that problem treated by the best physicians in the country. If I am in an accident, my recovery should be tracked by medical experts. My psychological welfare, likewise, is to be looked at by professionals in the field. But if my country has no healthcare system in place, I may die if my medical costs are more than I can afford.
No other advanced industrial country in the world allows its citizens to be as endangered as Americans are right now. Most of them have some form of single-payer insurance. My wife and I are lucky. We are retired, and receive Social Security that we paid into for sixty years. We also can afford to have additional health insurance (AARP-United Health Care) for drugs and treatment that Social Security doesn't cover. But our son and many of our friends are not so lucky. My mother taught school all her life, but was senile for the last seven years of her life, and died in a rest home. Her Medicare ran out and Medicaid finally ran out, as well.
Luck is fickle. That's its nature. We have some exceedingly wealthy acquaintances. As it happens, some of them inherited the wealth that they live on today, or that they used to build the wealth they have today. A few of them hitched their wagons to a star that took them into the outer space of our 1%. Surprisingly, most admit they don't pay enough taxes to support the health needs of our country. We also know some moderate-to-very-poor people. Hard-working people. Proud people. To think that these two groups -- the very rich and very poor -- have an equal chance in America's future is ridiculous. Making all Americans responsible for their health care is blind to all the things that keep them from beginning life on a level playing field. It puts the poor and unlucky in a hole they can't dig out of for several lifetimes. Republicans and Democrats have the responsibility to heal this problem now, by creating universal healthcare for all Americans. I'm no economist, but I know some form of universal, government controlled healthcare, comparable to plans in other highly developed countries, is
not only possible, but morally imperative.
As a teacher, I also hope all Americans will someday have access to a good education. Tests after tests show that our public and private schools do not provide it. There are many reasons for that. But poverty, above all, breeds ignorance. Prejudice does, too. I almost vomit when people say, about a group of people they have categorized by race, sex or culture, "Well, you know, that's just the way they are." I realize that up until retirement, except for a few intervals, I was stimulated (and insulated) by very well-educated people all around me. As the author of the play "Pugwash" said recently about Cyrus Eaton, the financier who brought Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell together in Nova Scotia to discuss nuclear energy, "He believed that thinking was equally as important as making money." So do I. University life is not normal. It offers infinite opportunities to examine everything on earth. Nobody punches anybody out over anything. Conversations can be animated, but rarely threatening.
I have also been taught to empathize with others as a moral duty. My Christian childhood, lifelong study of religions, and years of practice in Japanese Zen temples have all worked together to convince me that I am my brother's (and sister's) keeper, and to love everyone, knowing that I am, in some profound way, everyone. We are all related, even identical. And yet I confess now that when I am out in public rather than behind the speaker's podium, I don't easily relate to most of the people around me. We often don't speak the same language, share the same views of the world, or even listen to the same music. (And, my deepest confession, I've never been able to share the world's infatuation with balls: football, basketball, baseball, golf, etc.) Regardless of how hard I attempt today to put myself in other people's shoes, I often come away with a sense of failure, even when love remains.
- At home in Palm Desert, CA, July 2, 2017.