April 30, 2009

God is Not Enough

Leibniz: “Why is there something rather than nothing? For nothing is both simpler and easier than something. Moreover, assuming that things must exist, there must be a reason why they exist thus and not otherwise?”

Nagarjuna: “Since all is empty, all is possible.”

The idea of origins has been floating around in my mind recently. Part of this is expressed in an exploration of cause and conditions, specifically those which created the momentary and illusive “me” of my current existence. I feel as though I have been seeking my identity, but in an unorthodox sense. I have been unraveling the strands of my past, my life in an effort to find what is at the center of the ball of string. Anyone who has ever unraveled a ball of string will tell you there is nothing in the middle, and my intellect insists this is true, but the stubborn ego insists it is not. Thus I find myself in this strange exercise to understand emptiness in more than a merely intellectual sense.

Beyond that little ball of string greater questions loom, fundamental questions, shaping questions. I thought I had asked and answered them a long time ago, but they have been popping up in my mind of late, weeds that need pulling. What a teacher once called “questions not suited to one’s edification” catch me at odd times. I wonder if these are mere distractions, entertainments like my cheesy science fiction shows. Yet, I often find myself in awe that humanity even possesses the ability to ask such questions.

I have been reading The Quantum and The Lotus by Matthieu Richard and Trinh Xuan Thuan, a monk and a physicist. It boggles my mind. Physics postulates the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe as we know it, some fifteen billion years ago. Yet Buddhism insists that nothing comes from nothing, a logical standpoint if there ever was one. Buddhism defines the world as cyclical and every thing in it subject to cause and condition, including the Big Bang.

The problem is not so much with the Big Bang itself, but merely that no amount of mathematics can describe what occurred before something called Planck’s wall, a point in time ten to the negative forty-three after the so-called “beginning” of the universe. Whatever existed prior to this is simply indescribable, if it existed at all, as Buddhism insists that it must have.

Mathieu writes “All religions and philosophies have come unstuck on the problem of creation. Science has gotten rid of it by removing God the Creator, who had become unnecessary. Buddhism has done so by eliminating the very idea of a beginning.”

This provides me with no answers. If the insistence on cyclic existence is merely attempt to solve the plaguing puzzle of creation, how is that better than insistence in divine creation? What makes it any more correct?

One thing the argument for causality seems to have going for it is that it trumps the argument for divinity. If everything comes from cause and condition, then so must God. If the world cannot pop into existence of its own accord, Big Bang or not, than neither can God manifest from nothing. “The reason why ‘nothing’ can’t become ‘something’ is that in order to do so, the ‘nothing’ would be done away with. But how is it possible to get rid of something that does not exist?” Mathieu asks.

Ironically, it is Trinh who seems to provide the strongest argument for a divine hand in the presence of existence. “Modern cosmology has discovered that the conditions that allow for human life seem to be coded into the properties of each atom, star, and galaxy in our universe and in all the physical laws that govern it. The way our university evolved depended on what are called ‘initial conditions’ and on about fifteen numbers called ‘physical constants.’ [Gravity, the speed of light, electro-magnetism, etc.]

“If these constants and initial conditions were just slightly different, then we wouldn’t be here talking about them. The universe, right from the start, seems to have carried the seeds that allowed for the emergence of consciousness, of an observer. In the words of physicist Freeman Dyson, ‘The universe in some sense must have known that we were coming…So far we haven’t come up with a theory that explains why these constants were fixed at a particular value and not a different one…By constructing a large number of ‘model universes’ on their computers, astrophysicists have discovered that if the physical constants and the initial conditions were just slightly different, then there’d be no life in the universe.”

Why are these constants as they are? What was the cause and condition or these seemly arbitrary phenomena? These are phenomena which ultimately set in motion, from Planck time forward, the seeds of existence of every star, planet, and ultimately, life. Is this the fingerprint of God?

This theory presupposes intention rather than causation. In other words, we evolved simply because we could evolve. If the constants had been other than what they are, the laws of physics bent just a little, who is to say someone other than us wouldn’t have evolved? No life, or no life as we would recognize it? I find great wonder in this. I am reminded of a conversation years earlier in which a friend remarked that the wonder of existence was enough to convince her of the presence of divinity and that without this divinity, the universe was rendered small and cold.

Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

But what if it is pointless? What if it is random? What if we are here merely by chance? How cool is that?

If there was only a one in a billion trillion chance for sentient life to exist, just think of how many times the dice rolled up snake eyes before it got us? And we’re here anyway. We’re here, still here! How truly immeasurable must the universe then be? How long must the monkey have sat at that typewriter before it hammered out Shakespeare? So if we are still here, if we are possible, then anything is possible. And I like the sound of that.

Physics leaves much unanswered, but it has begun to demonstrate just how the universe could come about, from the way stars and planets form to how amino acids hook together to form DNA in tidal “broths” of young planets. Trinh relates a story from two centuries ago about French mathmetician Pierre-Simon de Laplace. “When he gave Napoleon a copy of his great book on celestial mechanics, the emperor scolded him for not once mentioning the ‘Great Architect.’ Laplace replied: ‘But, Your Highness, I have no need of that hypothesis.’”

At the same time, Buddhism leaves much unanswered. How can I believe the answer to a question to which I know humanity will postulate almost anything simply in order to have an answer? How do I reconcile the belief in a cyclical existence of causation with Leibniz’s nagging question as to why anything exists at all?

God is not an answer, merely a gateway to more questions. Where did God come from? Why did God create the universe as it is and not some other way? Why would an omnipotent and loving God allow for suffering? Does God suffer?

One thing I do know is that God is not enough.

Eye of the Storm

Architecture Hall is unnaturally quiet. Or perhaps this is a natural stillness, one which repeats every four months. It simply seems so different after the last fourteen weeks of anything but. The inside of this sprawling building matches the low overcast skies. The Barn, Attic, Labs - all dark. The faculty are only just beginning to slip quietly in, wearing somber trench coats and dark hats. I arrived, early if not bright, as the big hand ticked past where the eight should have been, had the clock in the studio had numbers rather than a squiggly "Whatever!" on it's face. Today is the Last Day.

The Last Day arrives each semester. It is the day of the final critique on whatever project has been burning up our minds recently. For myself, it is the same project: Windhorse. This Last Day is unlike other last days. I do not have the camaraderies of studio-mates to fall back on. The cheerfully cynical comparisons of hours awake, computer crashes, printing problems, holding doors open for carefully hand-glued models, standing on tip-toe to pin up the boards in the gallery. No, it's just me, sitting quietly on the empty planning floor, typing away while I wait for the media center to print my presentation onto two three-foot wide sheets. The traffic outside the third floor window, the hum of my computer, and the ticking of the clock that doesn't care are the only sounds.

This Last Day started a week ago. I returned home on Thursday and set to work. I found an entire extra day on Friday, thanks to the obscure state holiday called Arbor Day, for which the office where I work was closed. Since then I've left my apartment three times: twice to the DN offices and once for groceries. Most days I didn't leave my pajamas. When my brain started to seize up, I took a shower, sometimes at very odd hours. My jeans are inevitably looser today, not because I didn't have time to eat, but because I didn't have the ambition, and next week will be a wonder of caffeine withdrawal.

I used to hate this. I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Some might mistakenly conclude that I've simply gotten used to it. Truth is, one never really gets used to this. What I have gotten used to over these last six years (has it really been six?) is the "woe is me" story that comes with it. "I've worked so hard for so long...we've all worked so hard...my project is crap...my professors don't understand...I had computer/printer/rendering/modelling problems...I haven't slept...haven't eaten...need to be fished down off the ceiling with a butterfly net." It's all true, but so what? Time to let it go.

Today is a good day. Not some shiny pop culture good day with rainbows and shopping and the love of your life in some funny storybook meet cute. It's drab and depressing and I'm tired and fuzzy and, maybe only for this moment, here, present. Thunder has been rumbling all week. It always seems appropriate that Dead Week happens during the height of tornado season. Now they tell us more storms are rolling in from the west. So I sit here on the third floor of Architecture Hall, work, and wait.

I have always loved thunder storms.

DN Column - Climate Change

And the first shall be last. Thanks to Dr. Donald Wilhite of the School of Natural Resources for letting me rip off his presentation. I had heard most of it before, but he made of thoughtful, reasoned, well structured argument. This is my last regular column for the semester. I will be the Opinion Editor over the summer, but we only print once a week on Mondays. We have four columnists for summer, so we will all be writing biweekly.

Climate change must be regarded as real problem


April 26, 2009

Inescapable Suffering

I feel pain for fictional characters. Sometimes I think this is very wrong, even twisted somehow, considering the world already has enough pain in it. Sometimes I think this is very right, unifying even, considering that fiction is an artistic medium through which people can communicate otherwise inexplicable pain. However, I must also remember that fiction also has another purpose – to entertain, which is essentially an effort to distract us from our own suffering.

I’ve been watching Farscape, a joint project between Australian Nine Network and American Sci Fi Channel. It is four full seasons and one made for television movie chronicling the adventures of American astronaut John Crichton “lost in a distant part of the universe.” When watching a series in such a compact time frame I am often struck by how intense they are. What took five years on television, took three weeks at home. That’s when I see how much suffering this “entertainment” depicts. Crichton was literally (in the best fictional sense of that word) hunted unrelentingly across the galaxy for four years. Captured, sentenced to death, escaped, captured, tortured, escaped, beaten, died on three separate occasions, made friends and lost friends, driven mad several times, killed evil people and innocent people, been infected by several plagues, shot more times than I could count, captured and escaped some more, strapped on a nuclear bomb, crash landed a few times, and never, ever coming down from that adrenalin high. Can you, as the suspension of disbelief demands, imagine living like that? That's when I start to feel the pain.

It is ironic. We create these escapes for ourselves only to find such pain in them. We laugh with our characters, love with them, mourn for them, even wish them well. If we could spare even a tenth of that depth of feeling for our fellow man, imagine what such a level of compassion could accomplish. Imagine the outpouring of kindness that would follow. Yet we continually shy away from the real suffering of this world to hide in our fictions. We ignore Darfur, Afghanistan, Mexico, the homeless on the street corner two blocks from here, the woman with the black eye sitting at the next table, the couple yelling at each other outside the grocery store. Then we re-create it in our daytime soap operas and cheesy cable dramas, sanitized of reality, but still such an intrinsic part of our existence that we do not even know how to depict a world without it. We are obsessed with it and most of us never think to question why. We who know the dharma are so very damned lucky.

Suffering truly is everywhere.

April 21, 2009

Honest Scrap Award

I was tapped by my good friend Barry over at Illusory Flowers in an Empty Sky (formerly The Urban Monk) for an “Honest Scrap Award.”

“When one attains this auspicious recognition, one is supposed to: write a post bragging about it, including the name of the misguided soul who thinks you deserve such acclaim, choose a minimum of seven blogs you find brilliant, list at least ten honest things about yourself.”

My favorite blogs include, of course Illusory Flowers, although I am honest enough to say I liked the previous title better, in the service of brevity and simplicity. Barry is smart, funny, not afraid to post pics of his own ass. I love that. The not afraid part, although the ass isn’t bad and I hope his wonderful wife, Amy, will forgive me for saying so. Amy writes The Edges of the Day which is quite lovely.

My dear friend Andy is a constant window into other worlds thanks to her blog Radical Seeks Enlightenment. I hope to catch her sometime this summer while she is in Chicago, which is relatively closer to Nebraska than her former home on an isolated mountain in Vermont.

I truly enjoy Colin Beavan over at No Impact Man and am greatly looking forward to the release of the documentary about the No Impact Project. His dedication to living sustainably is truly a thing of beauty and his posts on living happier and healthier always inspire me.

By way of environmentalists, the great Joe Romm at Climate Progress is a constant source for my own columns. I don’t know what I’d do without him and his in-depth understanding of science, politics, and rhetoric.

In Limine by my friend Sean in Denver always wakes me up and reminds me my body is more than just a vehicle in which I live. I would love to see more from him.

Rounding out the list is Rev. Danny Fisher in California who keeps me up to date on the scuttlebutt in amazing Buddhist blogosphere, with wonderful insights of his own.

Ten honest things about me:

1) I believe privacy applies to what happens in the toilet and nowhere else. If you wouldn’t do it with other people looking, it’s probably not a good idea. Not wanting anyone to know is just a product of fear and ego, no matter what it’s about. I guess that’s where all this “honesty” Barry likes comes from.

2) I don’t hate anyone, but I do have the overwhelming urge to smack people every once in a while.

3) I am full of fear, ego, loneliness, desire, and suffering.

4) I quote fictional characters.

5) I am combative but not competitive.

6) I never weigh the likelihood of success against the worthiness of the cause. This is why, even though I believe the world is in a climate change/environmental catastrophe/overconsumption nose dive we won’t pull out of in time, I continue working to do just that.

7) I like most animals better than I like most people. I honestly believe there are no bad dogs. I think it is a cat’s prerogative to bite whomever it pleases. And I know horses are smarter than I am.

8) I love everyone, even the scary, evil people.

9) I love prime rib. (Bad vegetarian! Down girl!)

10) If there is a grape vine, I am a string bean. I have a difficult time relating to people, picking up on sarcasm, reading body language, understanding moods, reading between the lines, and indentifying lies. As a result I don’t believe things can be implicit or assumed, but must be said strait up.

Pass it on.

April 19, 2009

Sleeping in Trees

Ya know, I love to sleep. It is one of my few true talents. So long as I can find a horizontal surface and no one is snoring, I can sleep. I can sleep through television, radios, loud conversations, traffic, wind, and thunderstorms, but not snoring. Don’t ask me why. I used to have a miniature poodle, Benjamin. He had a heart murmur which caused his lungs to fill with fluid, so he snored. I would reach over and gently flip him onto his other side two or three times a night. Now, when I travel, I just take earplugs because I never know who I’ll be sharing a train car, dorm, or hostel with. If there aren’t any beds, I’ll just stretch out on a bench or even a solid wood floor, so long as I’m flat. I got the best of both worlds from my parents. I am a light sleeper like my mother, useful when travelling, but I when woken, I can just roll over and go right back to sleep like my father.

I’ve sacked out on cross country trains, in the back seat of cars and busses, on the floor of various airports (I like to find a warm sunny spot, like a cat), on stranger's couches, in shrine rooms, tents, and out in the open on the bright green grass or across a flat, sun-warmed boulder. I’ve even slept laid out on the branch of a tree, twenty feet in the air. I am a big fan of naps. I can sleep ten hours, take a mid-morning nap, eat lunch, take an afternoon nap, eat dinner, and go to bed with the sundown, no problem. The only time I ever come close to falling asleep sitting up is during meditation. That’s getting easier all the time. Or harder (to stay awake), depending on how you look at it.

I solve problems in my sleep. As I’m preparing for rest, I come up with some of my best poetry and I have to get up and write it down, or I solve a story plot problem that had been worrying me. When I’m working on a design problem in studio, I can set my mind to the task as I climb into bed and in the morning I’ll wake up with a solution. Some of my best ideas for buildings and novels have come in the way of dreams. I dream about spaces and trusses and the way light enters the room and how rain moves on the roof and where the land slopes and trees shelter. My best design yet came to me during a three-day meditation retreat. It was out of the blue. The problem had been simmering for a month and Pop! in the middle of the afternoon session, “Oh! That would work!” I earned my first semester A in studio class for that.

These odd similarities between sleep and meditation are interesting to me. Meditation seems to lead me to sleep, but then, so does a really boring lecture (which I suppose isn't all that different from my own mental chatter). Yet, both meditation and sleep aid me in solving problems. However, sleep is most certainly not meditation. It feels as though in meditation you are watching your mind, while in sleep, your mind is watching you.

Often when I nap I have lucid dreams, the dreams I know are dreams and can consciously manipulate. Yet sometimes, when I know I’m dreaming, I also know I need to wake up. I need to go back to work and get things done. I dream that I wake, rise, dress, work, eat, etc., only to realize I’m still dreaming – a dozen times over, until I finally peel my eyelids open with what seems to be a monumental effort. It’s often frustrating, as if my mind has gotten the better of me, but never frightening.

Sometimes I find it odd that I like sleep so much. It is one of my favorite activities, always has been, ever since I was a child. Ironically, I never wanted to go to bed, but I also never wanted to get up. I am not a morning person. Once up, I can be quite productive, especially if I’ve managed to solve something in the night, but it’s the getting out of bed in the first place that is troublesome. Even now, sleep is a priority. I’ll go to bed hungry, dirty, and with work still to be done. I’ll take a B and eight hours sleep over an A any day of the week.

I once found a quote ostensibly by the Dalai Lama that read “Sleep is the best meditation.” I don’t think he was talking to me. For me, sleep is more like hibernation, a retreat from the world, a solution for stress. Is that what meditation is? Meditation has often been as much a cause of stress as a solution, which is why I only manage it in small doses.

Is sleep a form of meditation, is meditation somehow like sleep, or am I just barking up the wrong tree entirely?

April 16, 2009

DN Column - Economic Inefficiency

The general idea for this column came from Tom Philpott's article "Toward a less efficient and more robust food system" over on Grist. His citations of Jane Jacobs made a lot of sense to me, as I've read Jacobs myself and generally respect and agree with her ideas. Other contributing ideas and research come from Mother Jones (uber liberal), where I found an article by Kevin Drum and a column by Bill McKibbon. No Impact Man had a guest post from Sean Sakamoto which I enjoyed. Finally, Too Big To Fail from Businessweek and Where Obesity Grows by George Will over on Real Clear Politics (uber conservative) both helped.

Economic efficiency not best solution for America


April 15, 2009

You Want a Piece of Me?

I have heard it said that an argument is essentially an egocentric activity. It is simply about imposing one’s will, one’s opinion of what is “right” on another. My own experience has proven this is often the case. Yet, I love to debate. I use the word debate deliberately, to distinguish it from argument. By my definition, an argument is a battle of will in which right and wrong are not even an issue, but only ego which is at stake. Whereas a debate is a discussion of two opposing viewpoints in which the final determination is unknown and ego is not an issue.

I know, how often does that happen? Not often I’ll grant you. I often wonder if I am fishing at straws and trying to justify a tendency that I find within myself, one that I genuinely enjoy and therefore cling to – my combative nature. I consider the evidence.


When I was little, I used to sit in my grandfather’s recliner upside down. Grandma Elaine would always scold me for being improper, but that never dissuaded me. I wanted to know why I wasn’t supposed to sit in a chair upside down and propriety did not seem like a worthwhile reason. Of course, eventually Grandma Elaine shrugged and gave up, and I sat in that chair upside down for so long that my head started to hurt as it filled up with blood. Then I understood why people shouldn’t sit in chairs upside down and I didn’t do it anymore. I can’t honestly say I was merely curious. I sat upside down because I could. I defied my grandma because I could. I wanted to match wits against her at least as much as I wanted to figure out why I shouldn’t sit in chairs upside down. In the end, she was right, and I didn’t mind, but I needed to figure it out on my own.


I have always been more than willing to debate with anyone over anything. When I was younger, I would certainly have even called it arguing. I can recall arguing a point even after I was proved wrong and even after I knew I was wrong. However, as I got older I became a little more discerning and certainly more willing to admit when I was wrong. Ninth Grade English included a section on debate. I debated for capitol punishment, even though I was against it, and sited Biblical verse even though I was an avowed atheist.

My competitor cried foul. “You don’t even believe in the Bible!”

“No, but you do,” I pointed to the audience. “They do.”

Obviously, it wasn’t about being right, or I would have insisted on being on the other side, but it was certainly about winning. It was about ego.


I never enjoyed sports, especially team sports, probably because I was rather un-athletic and always picked last. However, when I got out of high school, I took a fencing class. I loved fencing. Fencing is one of those sports at which everyone is abysmally bad before they are even remotely good. I loved fencing people who were better than I, because that somehow improved my own performance. Subsequently, I lost a lot. When I fenced people too far below my own level, I became sloppy and I didn’t like that. So it wasn’t about winning, but it was still about ego.

I wanted to feel like I was doing the best I could, even if I was losing. I loved the challenge of fencing someone who was just a little bit better than I. I loved how damned hard it was. I loved fighting with the guys, because they had a different dynamic, since men are conditioned by society to be competitive and don’t take it so personally. I loved the battle of wits and I was perfectly willing to fight dirty if my opponent did and there were those in our club who would. Yet no matter how dirty we fought, we were also the type of club who ended every match with a hug, not just a handshake. We were a club without a formal coach, so we all taught and mentored and helped each other. Too much ego would have made that impossible.


My department went out for lunch once, as a farewell to one of our coworkers. This was when I worked in Military Science, surrounded my active duty, National Guard, or reserve Army officers and NCOs. The Major made a joking stab for something on my plate and I actually growled at him. After all, I growl at my father all the time, trading joking threats and insults back and forth, but the Major looked rather shocked before he burst out laughing. The fact that I liked fencing and took other martial arts classes perplexed them.

“Aren’t you a pacifist?” the Master Sergeant asked once.

“Yes, I’m a pacifist. Not a victim,” I told him, incensed by his assumption that pacifist was synonymous with doormat. My ego would not let anyone think I was passive just because I was a pacifist.


The best debate I can recall was one in student senate a couple of years ago. It was over library fees and it lasted three weeks. I began firmly on one side. At one point, the student president came to me and asked what it would take to change my mind. I think I responded something along the lines of hell freezing over. Yet in the final debate, something the external vice president said struck me true and clear. Before the entire senate I formally apologized to the president for my earlier flippant response and told everybody to make a note that should they ever meet my mother, they must bear witness that I can in fact change my mind. I then argued with the same fervor for the very position I had just spent the better part of ten hours arguing against. I love that debate because I learned something. I love that I was wrong.


I have a classmate, Bret, who I do nothing but argue with, rather gleefully at times. Of course, Bret loves it because we are two peas in a pod in this one respect. We both enjoy silly, meaningless debate, but neither one of us takes it at all personally. Bret fired a recent shot across my bow via Google chat, with no warning at all.

Bret: A second pox on you!

me: you were the first one, right?

Bret: I am the alpha and the omega.

me: not to mention pretentious

Bret: Then why did you mention it?

me: someone had to

Bret: I find it odd that people use phrases like 'not to mention' and 'it goes without saying...' and then they say it. Perhaps it is because they are not the alpha and the omega.

me: well, some of us have other hobbies, you know, as the beginning and the end perhaps you could outlaw all annoying linguistic conventions

Bret: Hobbies such as literary contradiction?

me: now where would literature be without contradictions? we'd have nothing left to write about

Bret: English profs might actually have to get productive jobs....no, it is best we keep the flakes isolated from productive society. I don't want to be told that my French fries are phallic symbols.

me: I'll remember that next time I see you eating French fries and be sure to bring it up

Bret: Flake.

me: who moi? I do believe it was your metaphor, dear.

Bret: If the shoe fits...you should take it off and throw it at someone. -Bret the Wise

me: now that would be a waste of a perfectly good shoe

Bret: Also: You can lead a horse to water...but you can't commit seppuku with a keyboard. -Bret the Most Wise

me: I wouldn't be so sure of that until you tried; I bet if you fell on it, you could at least damage your organs and die of internal bleeding; not that I'd recommend it, of course

Bret: True, but internal bruising and bleeding does not a ritualistic disembowelment make. I'm pretty sure that the worst that could happen would be that a key would snap off and lodge in your bellybutton.

It continued from there for quite a while longer. When I first met Bret, I didn’t like him. I thought he was just an egocentric asshole. Now I know he’s just an asshole. Despite his vociferous assertion that “ONE is the only good size for a team!” I would rather have him on my project than anyone I know. If you tell him to shut the hell up and get back to work, he shrugs and gets back to work. He never takes anything personally, which is why I love him.


In the College of Architecture we don’t fear exams or term papers. We (perhaps unfairly) mock those who do. We fear crit. That’s short for final critique, in which you display your project on boards and through physical and virtual models for the faculty and visiting architects to comment on before your entire class. And by comment, I mean tear apart into itty-bitty, burnt and bloody, little pieces. During those first years, I was notoriously difficult to critique, both in formal crit and in private crit during studio between just the studio professor and myself. This is because most of the time I genuinely didn’t understand, and lack of comprehension makes me very frustrated, which I hate and tend to take out on the professor in question. It is a matter of ego. I don’t like to feel stupid. And architecture professors are not interested in pulling punches to spare anyone else's ego.

I’ve worked on it over the years, but sometimes in crit I still feel my hackles rise and once they do, they are very hard to smooth down again. Once I start to push, it’s very difficult to stop. This is one of the primary reasons I question my own combativeness. I can see exactly how damaging it is to me and those around me. I’m coming up on a very serious critique at the end of this month, and another year of very serious critiques to follow, and I need to leave my ego out of it if I am going to best serve both my client and myself.


This makes me question my own combative nature. Stress makes me quite prickly at times and I work hard not to damage my classmates. I use insults as endearments. I threaten people I love with bodily harm. I’ve even been known to punch, bite, or scratch on occasion, and I don’t just mean when I was a kid. It’s usually jokingly (or if I'm tickled, which I hate and react violently to), and I’m not out for blood, but I wonder if that tendency like a “gateway drug.”

Why am I like this? Where does this aggression come from? Why can it be so much damn fun sometimes and so rotten at others?

I’ve looked deeply and I’ve found no malice in it. I have found ego. Yet the thing that strikes me about the experiences I love the most is that they are the ego-less ones – the silly arguments with nothing at stake, the totally irreverent humor, the debates I loose, the crits I learn from, the sports I’m really bad at, the insults traded only with people I know understand the game. But can one engage in any kind of combative activity without ego? Is that even possible?

Do I need to kick the habit altogether if I’m going to make any sort of meaningful progress?

Pop Culture Dharma

“Illyria: We cling to what is gone. Is there anything in this life but grief?”

“Wesley: There's love.”

I admit, I cried my eyes out like a little baby.

My father owns every angsty, melodramatic, pseudo science fiction/fantasy, teen drama ever made. Don’t ask me why. And I steal them from him and watch them while I’m home working on my thesis, especially when I’m doing technical drawing or three-dimensional modeling. I have a habit of becoming too focused, I loose track of time, and my muscles cramp up from being too still. So, I leave something running in the background that will occasionally draw my attention and give me a sense of time passing.

For the last two weeks it has been the television show “Angel,” the spinoff from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” And I admit, when Fred died in Wesley’s arms in the middle of season five, I bawled my eyes out and made three handkerchiefs embarrassingly soggy. Fred is in so much pain and so scared, but she’s also so brave, and Wesley had loved her from afar for so long and had her for such a short time….sniffle. Then of course, her body is turned into a burned out shell for the demon goddess Illyria to inhabit, but hey, it was still a good scene.

Later, Illyria, a stone cold bitch if there ever was one, learns that her world is gone and she has lost everything. Through her own suffering she begins to understand compassion. She sees that same suffering in Wesley, who has lost so much, including the woman he loved. There, we find the dharma, in the most unlikely of places. It’s like the Force, “surrounding us, penetrating us, binding the galaxy together.” Of course, we can’t use it to move objects with out minds (that I know of), but no metaphor is perfect.

That’s why, no matter how cheesy, I like such shows. A friend of my regularly teases me about how completely unrealistic some of my favorite shows are, like Doctor Who or Stargate SG-1 or Firefly. And I always tell him, it’s not about realism, it’s about the emotion, the characters, the people and the way they constantly change and grow. The story at hand is just a mechanism for interaction, a tool. It’s amazing to me that the dharma can be found in such odd places. The Buddha said that we shouldn’t take his word for it, but seek to experience the truth for ourselves.

I experience the dharma in my everyday life, from washing dishes to going to class to writing theoretical papers. The fact that other people experience the same is demonstrated both by their actions and their artifacts, the things they make to share with others. Artifacts include stories, which I have always loved no matter what medium they come in, be it book, television, film, graphic novel, radio, song, or architecture. I love the stories. When I find the dharma in them I know that someone else put it there and that encourages me. Even if at the time they were just looking for a good line and didn’t even realize what they had, well that’s okay. Call it accidental dharma, if you will.

Everything we make is a reflection of something we have experienced, if all cut into pieces, jumbled up, and put back together inside out. Demon goddesses are a reflection of pain and suffering, anger and hate. And the fact that even they can experience compassion is a reflection of the human ability to do the same. This is the wisdom of Joss Wedon, who created shows like Buffy, Angel, and others. In its way, it’s not so different from the deity meditation of certain Buddhist practices. We just like our deities in smoking hot leather cat suits.

We like to think popular culture is devoid of the dharma, and look down on it for being exhibitionist, ego-centric, and exploitative. But that’s more about our own ego. We forget that within each person is the buddhanature and thus, it can also be found in the things they make. Not every thing, but any thing. And, in the end, even the parts of popular culture which are exhibitionist, ego-centric, and exploitative have dharma in their nature even if they can only point to the truth of suffering and the causes of suffering.

It’s up to us to discern which they are.

April 12, 2009

There Are No Sides

Last week at work our editor brought a controversial decision to us for consultation. Some of us saw things very strongly and simply, while others of us saw more shades of gray. Afterward, I walked out with a coworker who was still worked up from the discussion hours earlier. We had been discussing something near and dear to his heart, something by which he defined his identity.

“I don’t know if I’m shaking because it’s cold or because I’m still upset,” he told me.

I rubbed his arm and, lightly, told him, “Be at peace. Don’t let this ruin your night.”

“Thanks for being on my side,” he said in way of goodbye as we went our separate ways.

“I’m on everyone’s side,” I called back.

The next Saturday I spent the day with my mom, shopping at Lowe’s and working with power tools in the garage. Mom related the latest family squabble to me. Grandma came down firmly on the side of her blood relative, while Mom had compassion for the in-laws and tried to point out that Grandma didn’t have every side of the story.

“What other side would there be?!” she demanded.

“Well, Mary and her family’s side,” Mom told her.

I shook my head as we unloaded lumber from the back of Mom’s Jeep. “There are no sides,” I replied to Mom.

This is the root of suffering – division. It is the illusory belief that there is an “us” and a “them,” an “I” and “everybody else,” that there is something to be “for” or “against.” I fall into this trap just as often as everyone else. At that meeting, I certainly had an opinion, but I didn’t feel as though I was defined by that opinion. I didn’t have a side to be on. The discussion wasn’t about “me,” though I often wonder if my reaction would be different if it were about something by which I define my so-called identity. Perhaps I would feel like my Grandma if this was my direct descendant embroiled in the struggle.

Even so, I hope I would remember that there are no sides.

April 10, 2009

The All Spin Zone

Action needed against gluttons, obese people.

The Brilliant Kyle Citta, ladies and gentlemen.

Calling All Buddhists in Nebraska

Elicia Dover is a student in Journalism and Mass Communications here at UNL. She is doing her semester project on the state of Buddhism in Nebraska. She is looking for Buddhists to interview. She is a very nice lady and was fun to talk to when she interviewed me last week. She has promised to make her final outcome available and I'm hoping to post it here on the blog.

If you are interested in contributing to her project, please email edover@huskers.unl.edu.

April 09, 2009


It is a cathedral,

with a waterfall for a choir.

The old cathedrals rose

like beacons

from the crowded Medieval slums.

This cathedral, older by far, hides

amidst the desolate grass.

The grass drops away

and from the sand dives

a translucent stream

around which life gathers.

Columns of maple and birch raise

stained glass leaves

to catch the chameleon sun.

They whisper in the wind

and tell the tale of the seasons,

green, red, and white.

Yet always the moss

grows emerald in the mist.

Ice clings in the shadow of the stone

though spring is well advanced.

The water is cold,

speaks of winter

in warmest summer.

The sand is soft,

yet smooth like skin,

a silk hand

against the soul.

Walls of the wooded canyon rise,

cradling each being

which finds itself here,

welcoming it home.

And the stream,

like all streams,

leads to the sea.

Nature’s prayer,

like all prayers.

This is a sanctuary,

one spot unspoilt.

In time the wooded walkway

will rot and fall away,

as all things do.

In time the stone

will be worn down

and the great, gilt fall

will be but a simple stream again.

In time the sand will sweep in,

the grass with it,

and devour these leafy vaults.

It will then become a cathedral.

DN Column - Congressional Inaction

Again I need to thank Joe Romm over at ClimateProgress.org. I basically just ripped off several of his posts, mushed them together, and regurgitated. I did go back and check out the primary sources from the IPCC, IEA, and McKinsey Report, and picked up a few extra points elsewhere, but the bulk of it comes from these four posts: Introduction to climate economics, Hill conservatives reject all 3 climate strategies, Conservatives win Senate Democrat converts, and MIT Professors tells GOP to stop 'misrepresenting.' In addition, check out Grist.org and the Rocky Mountain Institute, specifically Winning the Oil Endgame by Amory Lovins.

Also, I have lodged a formal protest with my editor and requested that the word "simple" never, ever be used again in relation to climate change legislation. Or climate change. Or legislation. Makes us sound seriously misinformed if we think it's at all simple and that damages the credibility of the paper as a whole.

And any reference to the Dalai Lama was purely a rhetorical device and does not indicate my actual opinion of his opinion on the matter.

Climate change legislation necessary, simple


April 08, 2009

Questioning the Music

Today, as I plodded methodically through spreadsheet world, I listened to Pandora. I was in a rock mood, so the software presented me with a mix of Evanescence, Linkin Park, Three Doors Down, Puddle of Mud, Nickleback, Within Temptation, and others. I noticed how much I like songs such as “Pain” by Three Days Grace. “Pain, without love, Pain, I can’t get enough, Pain, I like it rough, ‘cause I’d rather feel pain than nothing at all.” I like these dark, angry songs which are so very full of suffering. Some people say music is a way for us to express emotions we can’t otherwise, but I think in some ways these songs allow me to experience emotions I wouldn’t otherwise. Let’s face it, I’ve led a charmed life. So is this fascination somehow voyeuristic? I am I getting a vicarious kick out of someone else’s suffering?

It’s true I enjoy almost all forms of music, in that pure way that only someone who completely lacks any form of musical talent can. My computer recently shuffled up a mix with the first ten songs by Metallica, John Williams, Yoko Kanno, Louis Armstrong, Aaron Copland, Creed, Martina McBride, Earth, Wind, and Fire, The Beatles, and The Transiberian Orchestra. Yet this dark rock seems to speak to me more viscerally than any other form of music. Maybe that’s the point, the purpose of this form of music.

Pema Chodron said that through suffering we learn kindness. Through this music I can learn to understand a tiny part of suffering I have never known. Perhaps I can use what I learn to offer compassion to others. But in consuming this form of music, am I somehow contributing to the suffering caused by the notorious “rock star lifestyle?” Does my failure to boycott music inspired by addictive and self-destructive habits amount to an endorsement? The DJs at the rock station I listen to here in Lincoln were even lamenting the other day about how much worse Metallica’s music became when they got sober.

Not all rock stars are masochistic drug addicts. But even the lyrics of those who aren’t seem to romanticize and glorify suffering in an unhealthy way. Thus you get punks and emo kids, one of the more truly frightening social movements I’ve seen in the last few years. Do these people seek the music out in an effort to express their otherwise inexplicable pain or do they model themselves after it in a misguided search for identity as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy?

I’m reminded of “Through Glass” by Stone Sour:

“How much is real? So much to question

An epidemic of the mannequins

Contaminating everything

When thought came from the heart

It never did right from the start

Just listen to the noises

(Null and void instead of voices)

Before you tell yourself

It's just a different scene

Remember it's just different from what you've seen

I'm looking at you through the glass...

Don't know how much time has passed

And all I know is that it feels like forever

When no one ever tells you that forever

Feels like home, sitting all alone inside your head”

So much to question…

April 04, 2009

Cat Nap

Warm nap with a warm cat

Woken by the thunder of a golden thunderstorm

Yellow eyes glare at yellow sky

She purrs and rolls onto her back upon my chest

April 02, 2009

DN Column - Identity

More subversive dharma. Although, I wonder if perhaps there is something contradictory about trying to use a personal anecdote to illustrate the concept on non-self? Oh, and I hate the headline. "Beauty?" Ppshaw. The column has nothing to do with beauty. Ego, maybe, because that weasles its way in everywhere. And I don't think that's an appropriate use of "personage" either. Sigh...

Beauty does not define personage