On the Nearness of the Near

(DOORLESS Door) Carrying on in the venerable tradition of the Gateless Gate. (Image sourced from zenflash.wordpress.com.)

(DOORLESS Door) Carrying on in the venerable tradition of the Gateless Gate. (Image sourced from zenflash.wordpress.com.)

If you’ve never encountered the eyebrow- (and brain-wrinkling) phenomenon known as the Zen koan, here’s an example from the classic 13th century compilation called The Gateless Gate or Mumonkan:

Buddha & the Non-Buddhist

A Non-Buddhist said to the Buddha, “I do not ask for words; I do not ask for silence.”

Buddha just sat quietly.

The Non-Buddhist said admiringly, “The compassion of the World-Honored One has opened the clouds of my illusion, and has enabled me to enter on the Way.” Making his salutations, he departed.

Ananda then asked Buddha, “What was it this Non-Buddhist realised, that he so praised you?”

The World-Honored One replied, “A high-class horse moves at even the shadow of the whip.”

You can find more of these Zen koans at Mark T. Morse’s zanily illustrated website thegatelessgate.com.

Happy and bewildering reading! 😀


On the End of the World

(DAME Maggie Smith) Let’s face it: most of us watch the show just to hear what she’s going to say next. (Image sourced from Google.)

So the third season of Downton Abbey has come to an end. While I remain a rabid fan through and through, I have to agree with my good friend J.’s assessment that Julian Fellowes was not at his best this round. There was too much . . . melodrama (melodrama in this context defined as drama with too many loose ends tied up much too neatly).

Still . . . (starts wailing). What on earth shall we do with ourselves until November next year??? (Assuming there’s no second Christmas special to lessen the gloom.)

Pass the time with Game of Thrones I suppose.

(Brightens up considerably.)

On the Joy of Living

So, after a few weeks of wallowing in a lot of drama, I finally got exasperated enough with myself to do something else besides whining philosphically (even if it’s philosophical, it’s still whining).

Since I’d lent out nearly all my Pema Chödrön books, I was wondering what could possibly get me out of my funk until I remembered a book that my friend Saar had given me on the studio’s opening: Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness.

It took me about around four hours to devour the book, which I unabashedly endorse as one of the most lucid, compelling and accessible manuals to being happy that I’ve come across.

(Just to be clear, the literature I’ve gathered on the subject tends to focus on Buddhist accounts of happiness or pyschological/sociological/ neurological research on happiness. I tend to stay away from what popular magazines or most self-help literature have to say about it, which invariably consists of tired old cliches with no phenomenological or scientific backing whatsoever.)

In any case, Mr. Yongey’s book was a much-needed reminder of things I’d previously learned from reading Pema Chödrön, Anthony de Mello and Matthieu Ricard, while also being a charming combination of the best traits of the former. Like Mr. Ricard, Mr. Yongey provides a detailed scientific account of precisely why Buddhist techniques for achieving happiness are effective to begin with; like Ms. Chödrön and Mr. de Mello, he provides constant reassurance to the reader by generously sharing his own personal experiences and failures.

A lengthier exposition of the book’s contents will probably be the subject of another blog post, but for now, let me just say that I’m definitely out of my funk.

And I have Mr. Yongey (and Saar) to thank for that.

Happy, serene sigh.

On the Convenience of Reposts

So, my friend Ceres shared a link to a New Yorker post that gave me a much needed dose of high-brow hilarity. Because it’s terribly funny, and also because I’m out of ideas today, I’m sharing my favorite bits of the aforementioned post: (The full article can be found at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/shouts/2012/10/le-blog-de-jean-paul-sartre.html.)


Wednesday, 22 July, 1959: 10:50 A.M.

This morning over breakfast S. asked me why I looked so glum.

“Because,” I said, “everything that exists is born for no reason, carries on  living through weakness, and dies by accident.”

“Jesus,” S. said. “Aren’t you ever off the clock?”

Monday, 27 July, 1959: 4:10 A.M.

Lunch with Merleau-Ponty this afternoon in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I was  disturbed to hear that he has started a photoblog, and skeptical when he told me  that although all its images are identical—a lonely kitten staring bleakly into  space as rain falls pitilessly from an empty sky—he averages sixteen thousand  page views per day. When I asked to see his referrer logs, he muttered evasively  about having an appointment with an S.E.O. specialist and scurried away.

So this is hell.

Thursday, 20 August, 1959: 2:10 P.M.

If Man exists, God cannot exist, because God’s omniscience would reduce Man  to an object. And if Man is merely an object, why then must I pay the onerous  fees levied on overdue balances by M. Pelletier at the patisserie? At least this  was the argument I raised this morning with M. Pelletier. He seemed unconvinced  and produced his huge loutish son Gilles from the back, ominously brandishing a  large pastry roller. The pastry roller existed, I can tell you that.

Friday, 2 October, 1959: 5:55 A.M.

My sleep continues to be troubled by odd dreams. Last night I dreamt that I  was a beetle, clinging to the slick surface of a water-soaked log as it careened  down a rain-swollen stream toward a waterfall. A figure appeared on the horizon,  and as the log drew closer I could see that it was Camus. He held out a hand and  I desperately reached for it with my tiny feeler. Just as the log drew abreast  of Camus he suddenly withdrew his hand, swooped it through his hair, and sneered “Too slow,” adding superfluously, “Psych.”

It is my belief that the log symbolizes the precariousness of Existence,  while the tiny feeler represents Man’s essential powerlessness. And Camus  represents Camus, that fatuous ninny.

Tuesday, 10 November, 1959: 12:05 A.M.

It has been over a month since I have updated my blog. I am seized with an  urge to apologize. But to whom, and to what end? If one truly creates for one’s  self, why then am I so disturbed to find that my unique visitors have dwindled  away practically to nothing, with a bounce rate approaching ninety-five per  cent? These twin impulses—toward reckless self-regard and the approbation of  others—neatly negate one another. This is the essential paradox of our time.

I will start a podcast.


On the Thrills of Voyeurism

(HUNGER Games) "May the odds be ever in your favor." (Image sourced from Google.)

So I got to watch The Hunger Games two nights ago, partly because of an impulse to reward myself after a rather frantic week, and mostly because Abbey happens to be a fan of the Suzanne Collins novels. I haven’t read the books myself, due to an enduring reluctance to read young adult fiction (case in point: I haven’t gone beyond the third book of the Harry Potter series and likely never will) but my fondness for dystopic narratives, female protagonists and anything remotely resembling Battle Royale made it easy to decide to watch the first of the movie adaptations.

Now obviously, there are infinite ways to interpret a film (or a book), with some interpretations more easily made and more widely shared than others, but The Hunger Games occurred to me as a particularly scathing—and delightful—indictment of reality-based television. Conceptually, there isn’t much of a difference between the fictional Hunger Games and the Survivor television series (the latter’s blurb could easily apply to the former: Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.). If anything, the Hunger Games is Survivor on steroids (or at least Survivor taken in its literal sense).

What’s frightening is that this portrayal of the commodification and consumption of “real-life people and their stories” isn’t a piece of dystopic fiction anymore but concrete and contemporary reality.* We’ve become accustomed to the spectacle of real-life people being thrown into situations involving a competition of one kind or another and we derive voyeuristic pleasure in watching their supposedly unscripted reactions and responses. But we all know that an awareness of being watched influences our reactions and responses—mostly in a direction that increases the probability of our continuing to be watched. (Let’s face it: human beings enjoy getting and sustaining the attention of others of their kind.)

The consequences of this are depicted all too clearly in The Hunger Games. Imagine a public addicted to the spectacle of “real-life” human drama—drama “real” enough to provoke voyeuristic satisfaction, but “spectacle” enough to suspend compassion and moral action. (Imagine cheering a procession of 24 young men and women—while fully knowing that 23 of them will die.) Imagine real people gradually, then consistently, altering their behaviors to enhance their appeal to such a public—until their projections become reality itself. (Imagine Katniss Everdeen playing the role of Peeta Mellark’s star-crossed lover to curry the favor of enraptured viewers.) Imagine, finally, a public so desensitized to these consequences that it doesn’t even consider them as consequences worth examining, or even just as consequences. (Imagine Effie Trinket asking the watching crowd to give a round of applause right after Katniss Everdeen consigns herself to her probable death to save her younger sister.)

It’s a dark and sobering portrayal of a feature of contemporary life, in other words, and just because it does it so bitingly and unforgivingly, I’d recommend The Hunger Games to anyone inclined to watch a movie in the next few weeks. Here’s to hoping that the sequel does an even better job.

* In this, as well as in many other things, the Romans preceded us with their gladiatorial games. The “real-ness” of gladiatorial combat was not likely a key feature of their appeal, however, limiting the usefulness of this analogy.

** I was gratified to discover, after writing this post, that Suzanne Collins was inspired to write her books after watching a reality-based television show and that the Roman gladiatorial games did form part of the narrative’s conceptual framework. Like I said, everyone’s free to interpret a film or a book in their own way, and, it’s nice to know that one’s interpretation dovetails nicely with the creator’s intentions. Especially if one hasn’t even read the creator’s books.

On the Persistence of Envy



So, the only thing I’m playing on my stereo these days is everything by Katie Melua.

There are singers whose voices and songs enter my ears directly and detonate somewhere in the back of my skull. It can take years for me to remove the shrapnel (in many cases, I never quite manage to extract all the fragments).

Before Katie Melua, it was Amy Lee, and before Amy Lee it was Vienna Teng, and before Vienna Teng it was Sarah McLachlan.

I’m too unschooled in music to pinpoint what exactly these four musicians have in common that I like so much. The only things I can think of are that: (1) they’re gifted singer-songwriters, (2) they’re accomplished pianists, (3) they have incredibly haunting voices, (4) their lyrics and melodies make me want to write (and have actually made me write), and (5) item #4 notwithstanding, they’re the kind of artists who make me wish that I were a singer instead of a writer.

Because let’s face it, nothing, and I mean nothing, makes people happier faster than music.


On the Modernity of Families

(MODERN Family) A spectacularly enjoyable useless pastime. (Image sourced from Google.)

I’m a terribly late adopter when it comes to television, mostly because I don’t have a television, I don’t have a radio, I don’t read newspapers (except in dentist’s offices), I don’t read magazines (except the free copy of the Economist that sometimes accompanies international flights), I barely surf the net, and I only talk about SERIOUS things with my family and friends (things lifted from the last copy of the Economist that I managed to read). So when a really good show comes along, it can take up to five years before it actually shows up in my radar screen.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait so long to stumble onto Modern Family because a malfunction involving a slightly…illegitimate copy of the movie New Year’s Eve at my friend T.’s house inadvertently led to a search for alternatives that culminated in, yes, our watching Modern Family.

Needless to say, I got hooked.

For those of you who’ve seen the show, you know exactly why. After all, what’s not to love about it? It’s hysterically funny, uncannily real and paradoxically endearing. And even if it wasn’t any of these things, who can possibly resist Eric Stonestreet, Sofia Vergara and Rico Rodriguez???

As for those of you who haven’t seen the show, I’m not going to say watch it because I don’t recommend watching television on principle. But if you’re watching television anyway (and it’s therefore not my fault that you engage in useless pastimes), go ahead and watch as much of Modern Family as you can. As useless pastimes go, this one’s one close to the top of my list.