Beginner's Mind

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." - Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Bringing 2005 To A Close

I don't want my last post of the year to be something gloomy.

From where I am, 2005 has just under six hours left before 2006 arrives. It's been quite a year. It was on this day last year that we learned Karen was pregnant, and on September 2nd Ethan joined us, bringing so much joy into our house it leaks out the windows and flows down the driveway (at least, those parts that don't float up into and over the clouds).

Looking forward into 2006, I've got a week of limited diet (basically, rice and chicken) in an attempt to determine if food is the cause of my headaches (or allergies or sensitivities or...). It's time to restart my sitting practice, as well as daily exercise and yoga. I also want to get a bit more serious about learning French, as well as the computer language Prolog. So, it's time to establish a routine and stick to it. Sitting on my shelf, ready for the first entry tomorrow, is a Moleskine 2006 daily planner, where I will keep track of all these things, as well as record my pain values (and weather conditions) for the day.

Karen and I will also be rejoining Weight Watchers. They won't let pregnant women belong, and, as she was my weight loss buddy, I not only failed to keep the regimen but put on another twenty pounds or so in the process.

Finally, at the risk of being too ambitious, I resolve to write at least one new poem a month. I'll start with Mary Oliver's handbook, and see where it leads me.

I encourage my reader(s) to reveal some of their resolutions for 2006 in the comment section.

In the meantime, I bow to you all. My wishes for us all for 2006:

May all beings have happiness and its causes.
May all beings be free from suffering and its causes.
May all beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss.
May all beings abide in equanimity free from bias, attachment and anger.


Use of Torture


Thursday, December 29, 2005

Intelligent Design - Is It Scientific?

Nacho on his excellent and arty blog WoodMoor Village Zendo has a couple of lengthy entries (here and here) in which he disputes the notion that Intelligent Design (ID) is a science, mainly in a reply to a stance of ID as science through Buddhist thought. Nacho (I love that name) goes into deep detail, as do a few of his commentors, of specific mechanisms that ID adherents claim are evidence for a designer for life, the universe, and everything.

I want to first address the idea that ID is a scientific theory. It isn't. To be truly scientific, a theory must have, at a minimum, two characteristics: 1) it must explain the current empirical data, and 2) it must be able to predict future observation and testing results. Let's look at both of these.

Does ID explain current empirical data? As a matter of fact, it does, in a twisted way. All characteristics and observations can be simply explained as the work of the Designer (I will honor the way the ID folks carefully avoid the word God or Deity or Supreme Being, though we know [nudge nudge wink wink] that this is really what they are trying to prove). Yet this does not get the ID folks off the hook; as a corollary, a true scientific theory can be shown to be incorrect by clearly defined data. Is there data that would prove ID wrong? Oddly enough, there is, and that is the overwhelming evidence of evolution. However, ID proponents maintain that evolution is only a theory, and theories are only ideas, not facts. This is the kind of misunderstanding and myopic word meaning thinking that, curiously enough, you find among fundamentalists. But evolution is a fact.

At the risk of digression, this clinging to evolution as a theory rather than fact is akin to the following situation. You are standing in a field, looking west at a beautiful sunset. Suddenly, and without warning, you feel yourself hit in the back of the head by a hard object. You turn around, and, standing there is another person, the only other person in the field besides yourself. This other person, your alleged attacker, grips a hammer dripping with blood, and he has a smile on his face. Now, the question is, did that person hit you? You can do all kinds of tests; the wound on your head matches the peen of the hammer; it is your blood dripping off the hammer, as determined by DNA and other tests. In a court of law, this would be evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that this person hit you on your head with that hammer. However, to a jury of ID believers, you still haven't proved that the person did indeed attack you, as you did not see the person hit you. In fact, nowhere in the Bible does it state that this person hit you; it's possible that some Intelligent Hammer Attacker did the attack, and arranged the evidence to make you think it was this other person, to test the faith of all involved.

But, let's get back to ID as a scientific theory. Clearly, ID does not enable a person to predict future events, nor does it allow for testing and reproducing current tests. If everything that happens does so because it is designed that way by some sort of Designer, you can never know if some new piece of data comes from the inherent Design, or if it is a fact which calls into question Intelligent Design. To be able to predict, you would have to know the mind of the Designer. You cannot predict what results you will see when changes in the environment occur.

So, clearly, ID is not scientific. Well, then, what is it?

I contend we can determine this through induction, by observing the history of thought as it pertains to gods and the supernatural.

As far back as there is a written record (and there is reasonable evidence that this occurred prehistorically) man has explained his world through the use of supernatural forces. Phenomena that was mysterious was believed to be the actions of gods, goddesses, and monsters. The Nile river overflowed its banks every year at the same time, allowing for the cultivation of crops, because the Gods provided it. A lightening bolt was caused by Zeus tossing them from Mt. Olympus. Do you see a pattern? When phenomena could not be explained logically or scientifically, it was given a supernatural cause.

Sometimes these phenomena were given a number of supernatural explanations, as different cultures created their own answers. Let's take one big example, that of death. What happens when we die?

The Egyptians thought that, if the body were properly preserved, a dead person would be resurrected in a land in the "west" overseen by a god, Osiris. The process of preservation was overseen by Anubis, who provided the necessary magic for the process. This was not metaphorical thinking on the part of Egyptians; burials were always on the west side of the Nile, for example.

Among the Greeks and Romans, the dead were sent to The Underworld (in fact, there were different underworlds; Hades, Tartarus, the Elysian Fields). Amongst the Norse, a warrior who died in battle was taken by the Valkyries to Valhalla, the warrior's hall, to await the final battle, Ragnorak.

In modern times, we have similar supernatural systems. Among Christians, if we are "good" we go to Heaven for an eternal life of bliss; if we are "bad" we go to Hell for an eternal life of punishment. In Hindu and Buddhist systems, our actions in this life determine the life we will have upon reincarnation, until we are free from the cycle of birth and death.

The point I am trying to make is humans seem to have a need to know the causes of phenomena we experience in our lives. Not only do we want to know how things happen, but also why. Science is a body of practices that can determine the way things work. It has led to another body of practices, technology, which allows us to manipulate our environment for what we perceive to be "better" situations. While science and technology have been with us from the beginnings of the human race (and it isn't only humans who have science and technology), it has only been since the Enlightenment that science has begun to regularly provide natural answers for what were once attributed to supernatural causes.

Supernatural causes are the domain of religion. There are still questions that science cannot answer (What happens when we die?). As long as there are such questions, we will have religion. Religion, however, is not always a benign practice amongst humans. Different religions, which provide different supernatural answers to many of the same questions, are organized in a various power structures. The leaders of these structures make their living by expounding on their chosen answers. Some of them try to further their power and influence by converting people of other religions into theirs. The more followers a religion has, the more power the leaders of said religion have. And, while curiousity is a human trait, the desire to control the environment is also human. Religious leaders believe they have more control over their environment when they have more power. As such, some will vigorously defend their power domain.

This is where religion comes into conflict with science. Increasingly, science is providing answers to questions that were once the domain of religion. As the supernatural is shown to be less and less a tenable answer, a dangerous trend becomes apparent to the leaders and followers of some religions. More and more, people begin to ask themselves, "Well, if my religion was wrong about X, what else does it have wrong?" Because Christianity can be such a binary thought system, many people, leaders and followers, make the next binary leap of thought: If the Bible has X wrong, then it's all wrong. And if the Bible is all wrong, then there can be no morals, no law, and anarchy and barbarism and evil will result.

This brings us back to ID. ID is an attempt by creationists to dress up one of the two origin myths of Genesis in the clothing of science, in an attempt to salvage a literal interpretation of a few passages of the Bible. Creationism, ID's ancestor, was also presented as a science (this is another occurance where Christianity has taken characteristics of a culture - this time it is science, but previously it was the supernatural aspects of a culture it was assimilating into its own power structure; for example, the Catholic Church turned the deities of certain native Mexican peoples into saints). However, Creationism was obviously a religious notion, and, as such, could not be taught in schools as an alternative theory to evolution.

And so Creationists took Genesis and God out of Creationism to create Intelligent Design. But it still uses mystery and supernatural in order to defend a narrow religious interpretation of the Bible. One of Nacho's commentors uses the example of bacterial flagellum as proof that evolution cannot have produced it; therefore, lacking a natural explanation, only a supernatural process could have created it. This is a common tactic by ID proponents, but a very ancient one. The strategy of defending Biblical creation from the contrary fact of evolution involves repeatedly focusing on those aspects of nature which have not yet been explained by science. In typical binary thinking, if evolution cannot be the answer, only a Creator God can be.

To give credit to ID, this is a far more palatable strategy than was used on Galileo when he showed that Earth was not the center of the universe.

I must also point out that not all Christians (Muslims argue against Darwin, too) cling to creationism in order to protect their power and narrow views. And I think this is how it should be. What literalists take as gospel (pun intended) in the Bible is understood as metaphor for a more important underlying ethical and moral lesson. Indeed many of creationism's and ID's opponents are members of the Christian clergy.

So I feel compelled to add that I do not think religion is without purpose in our modern age. For many, religion provides not only comfort in trying times (there are no atheists in foxholes), but quite workable and admirable guidelines for living an ethical and moral life. We can see how Buddhism is changing into a force for social change and justice, as in Thich Nhat Hanh's Engaged Buddhism. We see it in the Christian-based activities of former president Jimmy Carter in his work on promoting peace between Muslims and Jews, as well as his support of Habitat for Humanity.

We are at a time when some of the better religious leaders and followers are looking at the traditions and beliefs of other religions and finding value and insight. There is a movement towards finding tenets in common, and building a better world for all through cooperation. But there are still those who greedily cling to their narrow worldview, and defend it at all costs. Disguising their weak faith in the cloth of science helps nobody. Actually, it does serve one good purpose; it serves as an example.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

My Christmas Greeting

May all beings have happiness and its causes.
May all beings be free from suffering and its causes.
May all beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss.
May all beings abide in equanimity free from bias, attachment and anger.

Also, on this Christmas Day, our thoughts are with our good friend Kusula, who lost her husband of many years, Vivasvat, to complications with leukemia. May you find solace in the hope and peace this holiday brings. It was near this time last year when we all learned of our good fortune that Ethan was on the way, and we celebrated the happy news with Kusula and Viva at their home in New Hampshire. This is my favorite memory of him.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Yahoo's Year in Review

Yahoo has put together its 2005 Year in Review, with 58 pictures and thumbnail stories. It might be a bit much for folks on dial-up, but that's only a guess.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas: SOLVED!

I was running errands earlier this week, and the radio stations I usually tune to in the car were playing Christmas songs. I don't care for them, so my alternative (beside the best one, which is silence) was talk radio. I could actually feel my forehead beginning to slope and my brow getting lower and lower on my head. That I didn't steer into a snow bank is a minor miracle.

It seems that conservative talk show hosts have their boxers in a twist because the "politically correct" folks, the insidious warpers of culture despite the fact that none of them get media coverage (and, I suspect, like me, nobody actually knows such a person) are using some sort of brainwashing to get people to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas." The issue, I guess, has to do with the actual words, and not the practice behind them, as none of the talk show hosts are complaining about the fundamentalist Christian organizations who are trying to force businesses to decorate their stores using the phrase "Merry Christmas" whether they are Christian or not. These groups are organizing boycotts of businesses who use something other than Merry Christmas.

So, you see, it isn't wrong to try to force people to say certain things as long as the phrases approved by conservatives are the words being forced.

In any event, the radio programs went on and on about how 97% of Americans celebrate Christmas (I doubt it is that high) and so it is unfair that the remaining three percent are controlling (somehow) how people greet each other during the holidays.

I have devised a solution to the question of "What should I say to other people, especially strangers, during the holidays?" It is a pretty simple solution, requiring only a little thought on my part, which is why conservative talk radio hasn't come up with the solution on its own.

Here's the deal.

What do all the phrases such as "Merry Christmas," "Happy Holidays," "Happy Hanukkah," and so on have in common? Each of the phrases is the expression of wishing the recipient well, as practiced by various religions (and secular humanists). In many cases it is not possible to know the religion of, say, a stranger in line at the supermarket. You want to use an appropriate phrase, but "Happy Holidays" works for everyone; however, it doesn't express well wishing as well as a phrase from a particular belief system.

With that in mind, I propose that people use the phrase associated with their personal religion to everyone they meet. The recipient, understanding that the utterer is being kind, would then reply with the appropriate phrase from their tradition.

Does this make sense? The recipient should not be offended, thinking that the other person has no respect for the recipient's beliefs. They should just respond in their own way.

So, when a Christian says to a Buddhist, "Merry Christmas!" the Buddhist might respond by bowing, or with the term "Namaste."

There, is that so hard? Someone is saying something nice to you, and you are saying something nice back. We all then get to act like grownups; we still maintain the integrity of our beliefs; and talk radio hosts can untwist their boxers and get back to scaring their listeners with the latest conspiracy theory.

Music in my head: I'd rather not talk about it.

Monday, December 19, 2005

A Shout Surrounded By Silence

Everyone says it: pain is not our natural state. Pain is present in life, and especially for the small self that wants so much to be a part of life. But that small self is not natural, either. The pain is a warning that we're moving closer to a central silence, where the small self has no relevance--and so no life. It's like magpies and their nests. The closer you come to the nest, the more the magpies scream. They're trying to distract you, and yet they're simultaneously telling you you're right where you need to be to find the nest. Just don't get distracted.

-Soen Joon, One robe, one bowl.

More to come on this; I'm just sitting with it now.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Why a Buddhist Has A Christmas Tree

Last year I made fun of Christmas practices. This year I got to thinking about why I have a Christmas tree.

The short answer is that Karen wants one. That is really sufficient reason for me. Ethan is too young to understand much about Christmas, but he does like the lights.

There was a time when all things Christian seemed threatening to me. I've since mellowed out some. I remember people like Joda Weston, the Baptist preacher in Premont, Texas, where I went to high school. He had a real Christian practice, and this year I've remembered some of the lessons he taught me, though I did not belong to his church.

For example, one of the better high school football players, Ritchie (I don't remember his real name), had been accepted to Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) to play football. At the time SWTSU was the rival of Texas A&I (now Texas A&M University Kingsville), the school that was eventually my alma mater. Weston delivered the news to me one afternoon when he came to the gas station where I worked afternoons and Saturdays.

"That's too bad. Being a Javalina fan, I'm not a fan of Swit-sue," I told him.

"Well, I a Ritchie fan, so I'll root for him wherever he goes," he replied.

At the time, I was just disgusted. Looking back now, though, I see that there was a lesson to be learned (as I've said many times, I'm kinda slow), and that is to value the individual over his affiliations.

But I've digressed. Sort of.

So as I was in the process of lugging the tree into our house last week (it's our shortest one yet, but very full and is a Fraser fir, which is supposed to have better needle retention - but again, I digress), I got to thinking how having a tree wasn't exactly a good Dharma practice. Here was a living tree, cut down for the purpose of decoration and placement for material things, which was going to turn brown and die. It was a symbol of a religion to which I no longer belong.

As weird as this sounds, it reminded me of eating beef. In the case of both a fir and a cow, the purpose of bringing to life these two was to be killed and consumed (in some sense). Were it not for the final purpose, neither of these would have come into existence at all.

I also thought of Thich Nhat Hanh, who keeps an image of both the Buddha and Jesus on his altar. There is speculation among some scholars that Jesus, when he went into the desert, in actuality spent some time learning from Buddhist monks about the Dharma. I don't know if that is true, but it is an intriguing idea.

Both the Buddha and Jesus taught that we should be tolerant of and love others. Both taught practices we should do for ourselves. Both left a legacy that turned into a great religion.

There's very little in the acts and sayings of Jesus that are detrimental to society, depending on how you interpret his tirade against moneychangers in the temple. I think if he were alive today, he'd have trashed the Wal-Mart Christmas displays that began appearing in August and September, for much the same reason.

For our family, Christmas is mostly a secular holiday, which involves decorated trees, Christmas wish lists, colored paper-wrapped presents, Santa stuff (we have a little wooden Santa letter, written in a child's script, that says, "Dear Santa, I can explain"), colored lights inside and out. It involves full parking lots at the mall, eggnog, baked goods, and various devices that play Christmas songs. It involves Christmas cards, which Karen is sending to lots of people for the first time, with pictures of Ethan enclosed, him wearing his baby Christmas clothes.

But for me, in the midst of all that, I am still mindful that this is a holiday which celebrates the birth of Jesus (even though it didn't actually occur in December). For years it bothered me that Christmas was the biggest celebration in a religion that brought the Inquisition and the genocide of Native American peoples and cultures. Some Christians have carried out holy wars in the form of the Crusades, terrorism in Lebanon and the US, slavery and oppression of Blacks and other minorities, and now wage another war against homosexuals. Some now call for the execution of foreign leaders and family planning doctors, and try to force their beliefs into the school systems in the form of Creation Science and Intelligent Design and organized prayer.

What's sad is that, when confronted with these very non-Christian acts, fundamentalists reply, "But we've not killed nearly as many people as atheists have!" I suppose as long as there is some group out there more efficient at killing, fundamentalists will feel comfortable with their own numbers.

But as Joda Weston taught me, it's about individuals, not their affiliations. No doubt Jesus would be horrified at the things done in his name. I'm not going to let the actions of a subset of Christians mar my respect and admiration for Jesus, the individual, nor for those of his followers who practice what he preached.

So, I have a Christmas tree in my living room. There are presents wrapped and ready to be placed under it. And, when Ethan gets older, he'll learn about Santa Claus and the material goodies he brings. But he will also learn about Jesus, "The reason for the season," and what he taught about how we should live.

Gary Trudeau and Creationism

This Sunday's strip.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Time to Get a Little Political

Y'all know I don't like to talk about politics. My condition has helped rid me some of the cynicism that politics, and particularly so-called "conservative" politics, generates in intelligent debate.

But we are at a time where we, as a nation, are too far down the road of fearsome, knee-jerk reactionism. We are repeating governmental acts of fear (let's call it what it is - terror) that we committed sixty years ago when we were at war. These acts, as we look back at them now, we almost universally agree were misguided and a dark stain on the history of freedom in our country.

I remember a time, not long ago, when being conservative meant you were opposed to the intrusion of government into the private lives of citizens. That belief has been abandoned in conservative agendas (though not, I believe, in true conservative idealogy). I don't know why this has happened. Perhaps because the attacks on 9/11 occurred when conservative politicians ran the government, and they are now trying to correct their mistakes. Perhaps we are seeing what happens when one party controls too much of the power in our country, i.e. power corrupts. Perhaps it is because our president, rather than face combat in Vietnam, joined the National Guard (when he bothered to show up), and therefore does not understand the sacrifices made by our military to protect the freedoms being chiseled away by his administration. Or maybe the actions of al Qaeda are having their desired effect. I don't why why this is happening, but it is.

Today you have the opportunity to do something about it (if you are a US citizen, anyway). If you had the chance to contribute to a bipartisan effort to curtail the Patriot Act, would you do it? Especially if it only took you a minute or so? You can do just that, by signing this petition being created by the organization.

Now yes, yes, I know is a "liberal" political organization, believing in such un-American liberal values such as balanced budgets, ending corruption and abuses of power, limiting the intrusion of the government in private lives, and the free practice of religion. But signing their petition, and adding an optional few of your own words, will not send you whizzing off into left field with the Jane Fonda Fan Club and the ACLU. It's the message, not the messenger, that is important.

Music in my head: The Overture to Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Be a Part of Globally Created Art

Check out Swarm Sketch. You can even watch previously created pieces being drawn.

Monday, December 05, 2005


It took a couple of days, but I think I've got most things back in order. Mail address books, mail folders, and favorite links have been re-established. Again, this is not the fault of Microsoft, it's because Netscape does some strange moving around of files when you upgrade your OS.

I have to admit it, Windows XP has made the system run a lot faster and has made it more stable than it was. As much as it pains me, I have to give them their props.

Don't know if all my programs still work, but the ones I mostly use seem to be OK. As an unintended benefit, old hardware that I don't use anymore is no longer part of the system profile.

Still, those iMacs are looking better and better all the time.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

What a Nightmare

At least Microsoft was kind enough to give me an omen; the update program to XP crashed within seconds of starting.

It's been a real mess. And, to show that it isn't just Microsoft who is sadistic, under XP my Netscape profiles are gone. Oh, they are still on the disk, but Netscape doesn't recognize it. Netscape Help indicates that there is a way to restore your profiles after an OS upgrade, but the first step must be made before the upgrade. Of course, you never look for instructions on how to do this until after you've made the OS upgrade and your mail files are missing.

And then there's the little problem with the mouse driver. There are no included mouse drivers for my mouse (a six button wheel mouse from IBM). IBM doesn't have the drivers or support, they give that to another company, which, of course, doesn't have them either. A quick Google for the drivers turned up a number of sites with them, however they all have Javascript errors or PHP errors. All, that is, except the site that wants $4.95 before you can have the driver. So, frustrated, I paid the ransom, and now my mouse works.

It's gonna take awhile to get this all straightened out. Norton Antivirus doesn't work anymore. I'm not sure what else doesn't work. The all-in-one printer had to be reinstalled, and that works (thank goodness).

Friday, December 02, 2005

About to Take the Plunge

My computer is getting a bit wonky; all sorts of strange things keep happening. Programs die mysteriously; keyboard keys get remapped (right now the TAB key doesn't TAB and it's driving me nuts!). Most of this started when I upgraded my SETI@Home screen saver to the new BOINC program, so I've removed it.

But Staples has the Windows XP upgrade on sale, so I guess I will take the plunge and upgrade from Windows ME.

I've been lusting for an iMac. Actually, the strongest lust is for a dual processor Power Mac, but that is much more power (and cost) than I really need.

So, if I disappear for a long period of time, it's because I've fallen on my operating system sword.