Small Demon
May 032010

Found this at Tricycle Magazine. Check out the comment there from “Bill,” who, whatever kind of Buddhist he is, is severely irony-impaired. Bill hangs around the Tricycle blog as the resident scold & reminds me of the fundamentalist Christians among whom I grew up. Of course, I earn no merit from saying so, which probably makes me a worse Buddhist than him, but I came to Buddhism to get away from humorless absolutism & literalism.

 Posted by at 7:43 pm
Apr 112010

I better post this before it fades from memory. I would have gotten to it last week, but I have been chairing a search committee in my department and that has required a lot of time and attention (and which, to speak honestly, has been a terrific emotional drain). Anyway, NYC seems like a long time ago now, but I at least want to mention a couple of memorable events from my second day in the city.

I did not range as far afield on Saturday as I did on Friday, but even though I stayed downtown, I still did a lot of walking. I love walking in the city! My main goal for the day was to visit the Rubin Museum of Art, which Carole had told me about. Here’s a chunk of text from their website:

The Rubin Museum of Art (RMA) is home to a comprehensive collection of art from the Himalayas and surrounding regions. The artistic heritage of this vast and culturally varied area of the world remains relatively obscure. Through changing exhibitions and an array of engaging public programs, RMA offers opportunities to explore the artistic legacy of the Himalayan region and to appreciate its place in the context of world cultures. The RMA collection consists of paintings, sculptures, and textiles. Although works of art range in date over two millennia, most reflect major periods and schools of Himalayan art from the 12th century onward.

I wanted in particular to see the Buddhist art in the collection and since there was too much to absorb in one visit, I decided to focus on sculpture. This means that I walked past a great number of fascinating and beautiful objects, but it allowed me to leave the museum after a couple of hours with something like a coherent set of impressions. One of my main impressions, though, was the glorious architecture of the museum itself. The building is nondescript from the outside, looking like a corner office block on W. 17th & 7th Ave. (I took the 1 train up from Tribeca.), the inside has been hollowed out into five mezzanines with an elegant circular opening for a spiral staircase that runs up the center of the building. There are thematically organized exhibition spaces on each level. Here is the official description:

The 70,000-square-foot museum occupies what was formerly a portion of the Barneys department store in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. It was acquired in 1998 and renovated extensively from 2000-2004. [. . .] Many of the most important details within the building have been retained from its previous life, most notably Andree Putman’s steel-and-marble staircase that spirals dramatically through the seven-story gallery tower. In addition to spacious yet intimate galleries for featured exhibitions, the museum includes space for contemporary and historical photography, an art-making studio, a state-of-the-art theater for multimedia events and performances, a cafe, and a gift shop.

The museum’s ambient lighting is somewhat darker than one at first expects, but this has the result of putting each work in a pool of light that encourages contemplation. On the day I was there, the space was busy but not crowded, with a couple of groups of well-behaved school children moving about and whispering to each other. One little girl in particular struck me as the perfect museum-goer: She must have been ten or eleven years old, skinny as a stick, with a big shock of brown hair that kept falling in her face so that she had to hold it back to read the information cards beside the objects she was looking at. And she was reading the cards, unlike most of her cohort, who were flitting happily from one pretty or macabre object to another. She would lean forward slightly, reading the description, then stand back purposefully and look at the object, sometimes returning to the text for more information. Our paths crossed several times during my couple of hours in the museum and this child was always absorbed in steadily looking at the object in front of her. I wanted to be inside her brain — to see what it would be like to see these things without all my years of education and experience — to see them “ignorantly” and eagerly, as it were. I left the RMA in a buoyant state of mind and walked south through the Village, where I bought myself a straw fedora from a sidewalk vendor, trying to imagine what these streets looked like forty years ago when they were the haunt of Bob Dylan, Dave von Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Eliot, and all the rest of the folkies I listened to in high school and college. Hell, I still listen to them.

On the way back to my hotel, I sat and rested my legs in a little park, then strolled (like any good flaneur in his fedora) south, taking everything in, balancing my rural existence with this intake of the urban air, both literal and metaphorical.

Went back to the hotel and had a nap, read for a bit, then began thinking about dinner. When I’m alone in the city — NY or Hanoi, etc — I don’t like to go to fancy restaurants by myself — such experiences are best when shared, but I did want to have one snazzy meal while I was in the city. Fortunately, the hotel’s own cafe fit the bill perfectly. I had a bar-made soda, a panini and French onion soup, then pie and ice cream for desert, followed by strong coffee. Cash only, but with tip under $30. The next morning I took a cab to LaGuardia and was home in the early evening, even with the long boring drive from Burlington to South Colton.

 Posted by at 2:10 pm
Mar 222010

Left the hotel early on Friday morning and walked slowly uptown, got a coffee at one of the two million Starbucks along Broadway, and went to sit in Union Square for awhile watching dogs and people, mostly dogs. Bright, cool morning & everyone — canine & human — looked frisky. Went to the Strand and looked around, but didn’t buy anything because I didn’t want to carry a bag of books with me all day. As I was scouting the poetry section, I asked one of the store employees who was busy with her cart putting books on shelves if she ever got tired of books. “Nope, never,” she said, an answer I found lovely & heartening. “Me neither,” I said. Continue reading »

Mar 152010

One of the nice things about being an academic with tenure is that I have big blocks of time that I can use however I want, but that’s — for me, anyway — also a problem. I tend to fritter away time when I don’t have structures and deadlines. I get the most done when I am busiest. I’m trying to figure out how to structure my days more effectively. The need to do this has come into focus as my Zen practice has “deepened,” as they say. (It’s a bit of religion-speak I find a bit off-putting.) Basically, what this means is that doing meditation morning and evening creates a certain structure around which other things can be organized, so that creates a starting point.

I’ve always tended to work to deadlines and to write in spurts and dashes of energy separated by wide deserts of non-writing. I’ve heard all the advice and rules about establishing a regular time and just keeping at it, but I’ve never done that with writing, but now I am finding it pretty easy to sit on a regular schedule, so why not sit and write the same way? I have to weave this around my teaching and other academic duties, but in that respect I have it very easy. so that’s what I’m going to do over the coming weeks heading into summer and I’m going to keep up some kind of daily writing even when I travel. It has taken a long time to come to this, but increasingly I have the sense that not-writing, like not-sitting, is not an option for me.

And it’s not an ego-thing anymore, this writing and even publishing poems. When I was a boy I wanted to be famous, but I quit being a boy — at least that kind of boy – at about age 52. (Not that long ago, true.) I just want to make sense of things and language — poetic language — is the way I’ve always done that, even when I was a boy. Buddhism puts a lot of emphasis on silence and even sometimes overtly relegates language to a secondary status, not more than a practical instrument, necessary but deeply flawed. At the same time, Buddhism has produced its share of great poets. The genius of language lies, as the old Zen hermit-poets understood, lies in its impurity and imperfection.

 Posted by at 8:43 pm
Feb 092010

The old Buddhist masters I’ve been reading — Dogen and Foyan in particular — must have been crusty old bastards. They certainly did some hard traveling in the Woody Guthrie way, traveling back and forth from Japan to China, which is where the greatest Zen teachers lived. (Maybe that should be Way.) When a junior monk, accompanied by a couple of his seniors, asked Foyan a stupid question, the sage said, “If it wasn’t for you two old guys, I’d have punched that little bed-wetter out.” Still, what they meant by enlightenment is just straightforward happiness — managing to get through the day without freaking out. At the same time, of course, this is the toughest thing in the world and takes a lifetime to attain — this is seeing into the heart of things.