Beginner's Mind

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

Monday, January 30, 2006

Books for University of Mosul

Aunt Najma on her Iraqi blog A Star from Mosul has started a library project to replace out-of-date textbooks in the civil engineering department.

Her blog has a large following; for awhile she was writing for the New York Times (pretty good for a teenager). Then, her father started blogging. Now her whole family does (though this last hasn't been updated in awhile).

I did a quick perusal of the book wishlist; as usual for engineering books, they are really, really expensive. But there's also a way to contribute money towards the library. As much as I'd like to provide one of the requested textbooks, I'm afraid I can only donate. But, please do what you can!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Ethan Update

Ethan had is well baby appointment a few weeks back, but I don't remember blogging about it.

As of January 6 he weighs 17 pounds, 15 ounces, and is 26 1/2 inches long. According to the doctor, that puts him in the 90-95 percentile for baby size.

At this rate, by the age of eight or so, he will easily be big enough to kick my butt.

Since last week he has had a cold, with a bit of fever and coughing. His temperature is back to normal, but he still has the cough, and general don't-feel-well stuff.

Yesterday I watched him for a couple of hours while Karen went to yoga. Normally, when I watch him, he simply sleeps through most of the time. Yesterday, though, he was just generally unhappy. I tried all the standard tricks: I fed him, changed him, played music, sang to him, played with him. All of these were effective for a short period of time, but he just couldn't be soothed. Just holding him, while walking around the house and looking out the windows, was the best I could do.

After about an hour of this, my back was really, really hurting.

We were looking out the big living room window when Karen pulled into the driveway. At the sound of the garage door coming up, Ethan let loose a couple of drool drops and fell asleep on my shoulder.

Even though he has time like yesterday, it still amazes me how happy he is so much of the time. He always awakes with a smile. If he's been with Mommy or Daddy, the other one gets a really, really big smile just coming into view. And he goes into fits of giggling sometimes when we play the Chewpa song:

Chewpa chewpa chewpa chewpa chewpa chewpa chewpa chewpa chewpa chewpa chewpa chewpa chew...

or the Ninny song, which basically consists of words that start and end with the letter "n" with a long or short vowel sound in between:

Ninny nanny noony, nayny noney nunny, nenny neeny niney nanny new...

I don't know what it is about these songs that sets him laughing, whether it's the tune, the sounds, or the goofy faces we make. I'd guess it's a combination of all three.

We've got pictures to post. But we've all four (even Kane, who broke a claw) been a bit under the weather, so posting things (as well as reading blogs) has slowed for the time being. I'll post a link once the pictures are ready.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


While looking online for the story of Angulimala I came across this account, which also has a history of the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organisation ANGULIMALA, based in the U.K.

The story of Angulimala is a wee bit gory, but a powerful one, it seems. A Google search returned over 35,000 hits, including sutras and a movie review.

What with furor over Judge Cashman's ruling (which, as should come as no surprise, has been misrepresented, if not outright mistated [and let me state that I have mixed feelings about what happened]), the story has relevence, though I bring it up only because I think it is interesting.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Supernatural Conversation

Comments on my post concerning Intelligent Design elicited the following comment from Campagna, who writes the artsy blog Magritte's Apple:

Everyone starts with certain world views that shape how they approach these questions. Everyone. What is endlessly annoying about Darwinists is that they deny this obvious fact about themselves. No system, no matter how rational it may seem to its adherents, isn't based on some set of assumptions that can be challenged by opponents. It certainly is easy enough to conclude that there could have been no Intelligent Designer if one rejects out of hand all supernatural explanations for any phenomena we see around us. Yet this type of pure materialism is an intellectual dead; end - human consciousness, in particular, cannot be explained merely in terms of neurons and synapses.

This started a conversation between us via e-mail, which he has graciously allowed me to publish. My response was this:

I agree with you on some of what you say. Certainly our world views shape (dare I even say, taint?) how we perceive and understand the world. Science isn't immune from this phenomena. However, the techniques and common language of science is, I think, structured to minimize this. It has as a drawback that what might be intuitive links between observations are sometimes overlooked. I think even this is changing, though; the last quarter of the 20th century began to witness great theories of natural histories that were the result of interdisciplinary examinations of questions that were once the domain of religion (origin of life, for example).

As for supernatural explanations, a person can hardly be faulted for rejecting them. So much of what was once considered supernatural has been shown to have rational explanation. This is just a tendency. But, in a way, perhaps this is just a matter of definition; once we have a reductionist explanation for phenomena, said phenomena ceases to be supernatural.

As for consciousness, that, too, is becoming understood more and more. While I agree that it cannot be explained in terms of brain structures, such structures are vital ingredients of consciousness and must play a part of any complete explanation. An analogy would be a full description of a building; there's more to a building than the materials from which it is built. But that doesn't mean we can't understand architecture. So, I don't think a natural explanation for consciousness is impossible; in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if such an explanation were to be found in my lifetime. But this is just an example; my point was and is that supernatural explanations are no longer necessary; they may have a valid role to play in our society, but too often that role is malevolent to society. Whereas there are checks and balances to science, there are none for religion and the supernatural, and this leads to problems.

I do agree that pure materialism is, as you say, a dead end. But I rarely ever see "pure" materialism; there's still aesthetics. A person who sees, for example, images from the Hubble Space Telescope will find them quite awe inspiring, to both the person who understands how the subject of such images came into being, as well as to the person completely ignorant of astrophysics.

To which he replied:

Interesting thoughts.

I often enjoy reading James Randi and other debunkers of con artists in the areas of ESP and other psychic "phenomena". Perhaps the fact that natural explanations have been found for so much of what once appeared to be supernatural makes the claims of the Uri Gellers of the world all the more compelling-we need to believe that there is more to the universe than what our senses can directly perceive. That need, I feel, isn't an irrational one-I don't believe we are alone and "lost" in a universe whose ways are ultimately random and capricious. But this notion of a spirit-filled universe, if you will, a notion held by most peoples through most of human history, is a philosophical/religious view. Science can neither prove nor disprove this opinion. If such a view is pernicious, then most if not all human societies hold a pernicious view. Yet mere consensus is no argument for any opinion-it wasn't so long ago that virtually all scientists who studied the issue felt that the theory of continental drift couldn't be valid, and even today there is no satisfactory explanation for how the drift occurs. I would argue that there is some sensible middle ground between the old belief that virtually everything we see is of supernatural origin, and the current one that nothing is. I'm a Roman Catholic, and the Church, even today, deals with cases of apparent demon possession. The cases are carefully studied, with an eye towards finding a purely psychological explanation for the person's condition. And usually such a cause is found. But not always.

My response:

This statement jumped out at me: "we need to believe that there is more to the universe than what our senses can directly perceive."

I suppose I could be a literalist here. Much of what we know about the structure of atoms we know without directly seeing them. Nobody has ever seen an electron, proton, or neutron. But we know they exist. I guess I'm focusing on the word "directly." Come to think of it, nobody has ever seen the evolution of any life more complex than bacteria (well, there's the peppered moth). But, in Buddhist thought, there are six senses, not five. The sixth sense is thought, and thought has directly experienced these things. Besides, I don't want to be a literalist.

For the most part, I can't really think of too many reasons why there's anything wrong in believing in the supernatural. But, one reason does seem clear, and we see it in the Creationism and Intelligent Design issue. The supernatural belief in a Designer has changed from belief, or faith, into dogma. I heard the best definition of dogma in a comparative religion course: if you belief something in such a way that no amount of evidence can change your mind, your belief is dogma. Dogmatic belief lends itself to exploitation by con artists. Are ID proponents con artists? I don't know, what I've read seems pretty sincere; logically, some may be, I think most are not.

Having said that, I have a sort of faith that science will eventually answer most of questions of today, and spawn more that are beyond our current ability to imagine. It seems pretty infinite. If I take my own circumstances, I can see what you mean. If you've read my blog for any length of time, you know that I suffer from daily chronic, rather painful migraine headaches. Having exhausted most of the scientifically supported cures, I've now entered the world of alternative medicine, such as acupuncture and energy healing (though acupuncture HAS been clinically studied - hee hee - I didn't try it until I heard of the study, however). The results have been less than dramatic, but the point is even reductionist, materialist me "believes that there is more to the universe than what our senses can directly perceive."

So I confess my own condition has moved me closer to the middle for which you sensibly argue. It's a practical stance (the supernatural? practical? if I say that too much CSICOP will cut off my subscription to Skeptical Enquirer); I don't really need to know *why* something works, as long as it does.

Anyone want to add their thoughts? Comments, please!

Music in my head: Blue Danube Waltz

Friday, January 13, 2006

An Islamic Reformation?

I am by no means an expert on Islam, let me say from the outset. I did read the Quran many years ago, but it was very apparent to me that, at least in the version I read, there's something lost in translation. Should I ever conquer my problems with learning a language, I'd like to learn Arabic.

But, as I understand it, from a course I completed recently on American religious history, Islam has not had the equivalent of Christianity's Reformation. (Please, if I understand this incorrectly, correct me.)

This morning I was reading stories connected with Eid and the current Hajj, including a sad story about hundreds of people killed in a stampede during the ritual of stoning the devil.

It was the first story that caught my attention. The story ends with the account of an Iraqi anthropologist living in France and studying the Hajj. To quote from the article:

Daoud says the challenge facing many Muslim leaders now is how far they can go in modernising Islam and adapting it to the times in the face of resistance by religious establishments and whether they are truly prepared to introduce democratic practices into their societies.

"The mufti wants to take us back to the paradise we were expelled from, while many of us want to live the here and now," he says.

Whether intended or not, the Western world, while combatting terrorism (an admirable goal), is also laying siege to Islam and its followers, a very counterproductive move. Yes, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have said the words about the greatness and tolerance of mainstream Islam, while at the same time denying visas to Muslim peace activists and blocking charitable contributions to Islamic organizations (such contributions are part of Muslim practice).

There is ample evidence that some Muslim charitable organizations channel some funds to terrorists. Even terrorist organizations such as Hamas have activities for helping and educating the poor, apart from their terrorist activities. But Muslims in America have been asking for a list of approved organizations that provide assistance to Muslim countries; to the best of my knowledge, that has not happened, though my info on this issue is from last year and the problem may have been solved. In any event, American Muslims have adapted their charitable work to Western-based organizations.

I say all this not to cast blame on Bush and Blair (I could go on for a long time doing that). The point I am making is that Islam is facing pressure, not to mention open hostility, from the US due to the actions of a small minority of Muslims who carry their fundamentalism to the extremes of terrorism.

In addition, with the ubiquitous access to global information from radio, television, and the Internet, governments such as in Saudi Arabia are finding more of their citizens rethinking the treatment of women and non-Muslim people. There's a growing movement towards the secularization of government, even in such countries as Iran. Couple that with the militarily enforced conversion to democracy, and it appears that Islam is approaching a crossroad.

Perhaps an Islamic Reformation is on the horizon. I doubt it will take the form of a paper being nailed to the door of a mosque, but I believe it will take some sort of charismatic individual to lead the way. Right now we have leaders such as Osama bin Laden (a man of whom it can be said has Muslim faith, but not a Muslim practice) preying on the poor and oppressed. Islam needs a mainstream individual to counter men like bin Laden.

I have read that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. If so, then it must provide something of value to many people. While I'm not sure a splintering of Islam would be a good thing (as has happened with Christianity after the Reformation), Daoud has stated the matter well. Islam is facing an adaptation to "the times."

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Wheels Come Off

I'm sure the expression is used elsewhere, but I first heard it playing golf, during a particularly bad day on the links, before I learned to lighten up and enjoy the bad shots as well as the good: "The wheels have come off."

Yesterday the wheels came off. It started off with plenty of warning; I awoke in the middle of the night with a searing, stabbing headache. By 5 AM I couldn't stand it any more and took meds for it. It took more than the usual dose to get it down to a dull ache.

After breakfast I decided to put out a suet block for the woodpeckers, who have a tendency to scatter seeds from the feeders, looking for bugs or shelled seed meat, I don't know which. Last year I bought new pacs (heaving snow boots); they wouldn't fit. I had to take off my socks to get my feet into them. Further warning.

When I went outside, I took Kane with me, who gets cabin fever. He ran around the yard joyously, while I put the block in the suet feeder, getting congealed fat all over my hands. Once done, I went inside with Kane, to discover that, somewhere in the snow, Kane had torn off a claw, and he was bleeding all over the kitchen floor.

That's when the wheels came off.

I rushed to get a bottle of peroxide and the first aid kit. I washed his foot over a small plastic tub, and commenced to wrap the foot. Karen had her hands full trying to hold Kane still. In the middle of the wrapping, he jerked his foot back and gauze, tape, and blood went everywhere. I lost my temper, said some dirty words, and started again.

A call to the vet, they were able to see him immediately, which was a relief. The second attempt at wrapping worked, and I taped a plastic bag over his foot, as he was bleeding through the wrap. Kane had trouble walking, so I had to carry him to the car. He weighs close to 100 pounds.

Throughout this, Kane thinks he has done something wrong and is being punished. So, when it came time to pick him up, he squatted on the floor and would not stand up. This led to further words, which of course confirmed in Kane's mind he was being punished. I finally got him into my arms, through the front door, down the steps and into the back of the car. It took several minutes of heavy panting to get back my breath, and the world was spinning.

Good ol' adrenaline.

On the way to the vet, he kept trying to stand, and I get yelling at him to lie down. This had the effect of punishment, making matters worse with him.

I arrive at the vet's, and go inside to beg for help carrying him in. A rather large fellow comes out with me, obviously Pee Owed to have to carry a big dog. While I struggle to find the leash, Kane hops out of the back, and the guy says, "Hey, he can walk."

"Sorry, I guess I made a fuss about nothing."

"No problem." I guess acknowledging my state of twitness softened him up.

(By the way, pet owners will recognize this phenomena. The dog is crippled and in agony at home, and perfectly fine once he gets to the clinic.)

In the end, we got his foot treated. The vet clipped the hair around the toe, put some ointment on it, and chidded me for not keeping his nails trimmed, feeding him too much, and exercising him too little. A new bandage and wrap, and he's fine. I went ahead and had his annual checkup done, complete with shots and the like.

But, I'm still uncomfortable about my mind state yesterday. I was about as far from mindful as you can possibly get without breaking the law. I suppose everyone has "those days" now and then. But, Oh Boy! I need more time on the cushion.

Perhaps this is a wake up call (which my Buddhist readers will recognize as a pun of sorts). Practice, practice, practice. It's the practice during the good times which prepares us for the bad times.

Music in my head: Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Odds and Ends

Blogs. Macroscopic World has disappeared; or, at least, the author known as Quail of Peace. Her (I don't know why I think this was written by a woman, I just seem to recall that) last entry was nearly a year ago on Feb. 15th. E-mails sent to the address I had for her bounce back as undeliverable. I know she had some issues with the Saudia Arabia government, which blocks an unknown number of sites, and was, at least one time if not now, blocking Blogger's blogs on This is really a loss for everyone, including the Saudi government. Quail was an excellent source of info on Saudi and Arab culture (as well as on scientific discoveries) and we shared info on our religions back and forth in comments and e-mails.

Blogmandu, the "metablog of the blangha" hasn't been updated since last December 18th. This is a great source of info for what's been the subject of many Buddhist blogs. I suspect it will be back.

There's a blog for Richmond, Vermont, entitled My Richmond VT, that's a good source of info about happenings in our home town.

The writer formerly known as Andi has returned to the world of blogging with One robe, one bowl, under her new name Soen Joon. She has entered a temple in South Korea and is working towards her novitiate. She posts roughly once a week on Mondays, and the entries are always interesting.

My former roomate, friend, and high school buddy Jose' Johnson started a blog entitled Rhythmic Bliss, but he hasn't written anything since early November. I hope he writes more.

I need to update my list on the right column of this blog; some of the links have been updated, and I have additions.

Ethan.He's getting bigger by the minute. On a home scale we measured him at around 18 pounds (what's that, between 8 and 9 kilos?). He woke early this morning, and was happy, happy, happy. I hope I am someday the man he thinks I am. This morning we held hands (well, his hand, my index finger) until he went back to sleep (after he got his first, early breakfast).

He has a well baby doctor's appointment this afternoon, so we'll get a better measure of his weight.

New software. I discovered a new program and service (well, new to me) called SightSpeed. A large amount of my time was spent this week trying to get some sort of Internet-based video call program to work between us and my parents so they could see Ethan now and then. We tried Yahoo Messenger first, but had performance and reliability issues. Next we tried MSN Messenger, which didn't work at all and isn't really worth the added security risk found in all of Microsoft's software. Hoping to get better performance in a peer-to-peer program, we tried NetMeeting; however, it has problems working through a firewall, and is REALLY a security risk, and on top of it all it was buggy (again, what you expect from a Microsoft product). Finally, I did a search and tried a bunch of similar programs, but finally settled on SightSpeed because it has really good performance, is pretty reliable (but not without bugs), works without requiring changes to a firewall, and, for one-on-one video calls, is free. So, I recommend it.

Music in my head: Various bits of music from Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Trojan Horse...

...was really Young.

I had to turn it off. It was just too exciting a game, and, trying to be as restrained as I could, I woke up Ethan on a Longhorn touchdown. Had I watched it to the end, I would have awakened the entire town of Richmond (and I don't mean awaken in the Buddhist sense).

Music in my head: The Eyes of Texas.