I had an essay in October’s issue of “The Wheel of Dharma,” the monthly publication of the Buddhist Churches of America. If, upon reading, it seems somewhat decontextualized, that’s because it is: I wrote it last year as part of the Institute for Buddhist Studies program I was working on at the time, and you can see the question to which I was responding at the beginning of my section. In the essay I sort of kind of half-assedly pick a fight with George Tanabe, and I wanted to expand on my thoughts — they gave us an 800 word limit in the program, and there wasn’t really room to work through what I was trying to say.

You probably have to read Tanabe’s essay for yourself. He’s not entirely wrong, but I think his suggestion that we westernize our practice is, and I say that as someone who didn’t actively choose to become a Buddhist (I was, as the article notes, born into this faith tradition). The roots of the problem are historical: Jodo Shinshu practice, in the United States and Canada, looks a lot like Protestant practice, and that’s not an accident. The earliest Buddhists in the US deliberately set their temples up to be as much like western concepts of church as possible, so as to not raise the ire or suspicions of their neighbors. The fact that people got together on Sundays, sang hymns, and generally behaved like a church meant that Buddhism could be accepted as a church, and that was fairly critical for survival back then.

Tanabe argues that a lot of the ritualistic practices of Jodo Shinshu need to evolve into the modern era. He talks about transforming the gathas from organ-based pieces to works featuring percussion, guitars, and hip hop styles. I… don’t really know how that’s going to go over, to be honest; I’ve only ever heard one truly good religious hip-hop piece:

(In fairness, I am perhaps not the right person to evaluate this argument, because I’ve never really liked the gathas anyway. Having said that, we sung the wasan in Kyoto a number of years ago, all 3,800 of us at the 750th anniversary service, and it nearly moved me to tears, so yeah, I dunno. But I digress here…)

My biggest problem with Tanabe’s essay is this paragraph:

Thirdly, the rituals, and especially their languages, remain aesthetically beautiful but often have no communicable meaning. Sutras written in classical Chinese are chanted with Japanese pronunciations that constitute a special language of its own, being neither Japanese nor Chinese. For many (including some priests), it is mumbo-jumbo. The texts themselves deserve better treatment than that, and need to be chanted in translation or some other more meaningful form. Ritual aestheticism has its attractions, but only to connoisseurs and seldom to younger people or strangers.

I don’t know about that. If we’re trying to appeal to folks who know what western church looks like, the fact that they’re even considering becoming a Buddhist means they don’t like western religions and they don’t like being in western churches. I’m not suggesting we need to amp up ritualistic practice and become even more monk-like than we already are — Rennyo himself eschewed the idea of having specific rituals and specific acts of worship, and asked followers to concentrate on the concept of entrusting in the Primal Vow — but, having established these rituals are part of the liturgical style, we shouldn’t be so hasty to throw them out. True, nobody understands the sutra chanting. But trying to chant in English is just downright weird; I actually find it much more disruptive and spiritually disconnecting. Jodo Shinshu doesn’t have a tradition of meditation (it’s Buddhism for people who lacked the time to be Buddhists, basically), and a lot of western converts want meditation-type activities, so why not look at the sutra chanting as a form of communal meditation? It’s not silent, but it does do a hell of a good job at shutting your brain up for ten minutes or so and forcing you to focus on your breathing.

Basically, my issue with Tanabe’s argument is that he thinks we need to modernize and westernize to attract followers, trusting in the power of the dharma to grow the community. I don’t agree. I’ll support ordaining priests here (or, at least, giving candidates the option of being ordained in North America or in Kyoto), I’ll support trying to find ways of extending the teachings to contemporary problems of morality and ethics. But you need to get people interested, and you don’t do that by making the whole thing look like everything else — you gotta stand out, somehow, and we already do a pretty good job of standing out. Tanabe is right in that we need to have some way of showing casual visitors what it means to be a Buddhist, and what it means to be a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist in particular (the most common question I get is “so how come you like beer so much?”), but it goes much further than that. The outreach needs to be directed at engaging people on a personal level, creating the space for conversations about the Primal Vow and the idea of entrusting. So you need to create a modern-day “evangelical” version of Buddhism to help get people interested — but only after they’re curious, and as humans we tend to not be that curious about things that seem familiar.

I think the hybrid ascetic practice we’ve managed to evolve is pretty good for that purpose: there’s enough of a sense that you’re engaged in something that’s old, it’s different enough from western church as to be worth paying attention to, but it’s accessible enough that if you want to learn more, you can. At the end of the day, people who are interested in Buddhism aren’t coming to temple because they want rock and roll and hip hop, they’re coming to temple because in their minds Buddhism has to do with peace, serenity, introspection, and mindfulness. I’m not saying you can’t get that with bitchin’ tunes and memorable hooks, but is that really what people want?

Overthinking it

I’ve been feeling like a small child this past month. It began with the giddy anticipation of the new SimCity launch on Tuesday, which quickly turned into a fiasco and has all the makings of a high speed train wreck. I’ve officially now spent more time waiting to play the game (between downloading, processing, and waiting in line) than I have actually playing the game; between the server issues, the small city size, and the loss of the really awesome mass transit options I have to say I’m really disappointed. The adult in me says, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.” Then the child in me says, “But I want to play it nowwwwwww!” And the adult in me suddenly realizes that the child is right, that I paid $80 in what was supposed to be a rational business transaction, and got something that doesn’t work.

No wonder I’m pissed.

As a distraction, I’ve been revisiting Tintin. I got the complete series a couple of years ago for Christmas, finishing off a collection I’d been working on since I was a kid, and it’s fun to go back and re-read these books now with an understanding of the context that was missing when you were six. It’s easy to see the events of “King Ottokar’s Scepter” as Herge’s way of writing about German aggression and the rise of fascism in the runup to World War II. It’s also just as easy to see it as a story about palace intrigue and mystery, and my 5 year-old self certainly saw it in that light when I first encountered it at the library way back when. It’s hard to say exactly when I realized Tintin could be viewed as a parable about the wider world, about contemporary issues and problems for Herge, and I’m even less sure when I realized that some of the stories (“The Castafiore Emerald,” in particular) were really just exercises in narrative creation and storytelling. Unlike a lot of people I never really got into comic books beyond Tintin, but when I finally did start reading graphic novels as an adult I immediately recognized the legitimacy of their kind of storytelling — Sin City is nothing more than a Tintin story with a higher body count and a lot of nudity.

Continue reading “Overthinking it”

6 February 2013

20 January 1999 — 06 February 2013

I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.

The best dog I could ever have wanted, my best friend with four legs, the kindest, sweetest, gentlest dog I’ve ever known died peacefully today at home, surrounded by his family. He was 14 years and 17 days old.

At some point I’ll write more about Goblin and what happened. That’s not going to be today, though. I feel freer and lighter and more comforted now than I have in the past week and a half, and knowing that my buddy isn’t suffering anymore is the best kind of relief I could have on a night like tonight. We’re all very sad, but we’re also all very OK with what happened, and how it happened. One could only wish the same kind of end for all of us.

Everything I said back in September is still true today. The past four and a half months have been a blessing, and the past week and a half even more so, and I am exceptionally grateful for all of the extra time he and I had together.

I’m going to miss him like crazy.


I was at Cobs’ Bread this past Friday watching a middle-aged guy berate the pimply kid behind the counter. It wasn’t because the guy had discovered hair in his bread, or because he’d had a $20 stolen from his wallet, or anything else — it was because the particular Cobs in which we were standing didn’t make the olive Pane Di Casa bread on Fridays. The guy was going on a righteous rant about how screwed up Cobs was — because, you know, these kids definitely have the power to set the baking schedule, and the guy clearly knows more than they do about what sells and what doesn’t — and I wasn’t going to say anything until the guy roped the other pimply kid, the kid who’d been helping me, into his rage fest. This kid was clearly overwhelmed, and so being the person I am, I offered to the middle-aged guy that maybe he’d like to try another Cobs, since they all have different baking schedules.

“No!” he more or less screamed. “I’m not running around all over town to fix their mistake!” Fair enough. The kid meekly offered a suggestion that perhaps he try a different kind of bread; the guy indignantly told him he couldn’t eat white bread, and huffed out of the shop after complaining that Cobs had ruined his dinner (it was 10 in the morning — I’m pretty sure I could have made bread in time to get it out with dinner). I left with my garlic and herb loaf, thinking warm thoughts about what I could do with its chewy texture and appealing taste (thought number one: take the freshest tomatoes from the back yard, mix with brunoised red onion and garlic, coat with good olive oil, and toast — yum). Ordinarily I’d get kind of worked up about this sort of guy, and maybe I am, but I just couldn’t see the value in getting mad about him. He was, after all, getting mad about something entirely inconsequential.

This past week has been a lesson in perspective. The main floor of my house has been turned into what is effectively a hospital room. The patient is Goblin, my 13.7 year-old English Shepherd, and Thursday night I brought him home from the hospital — for better or worse.

Continue reading “Perspective”

The Proxy Marriage

Maile Meloy has a new short in the May 21st issue of the New Yorker, called “The Proxy Marriage.” New Yorker fiction is often ambivalent, emotionally stunted, or downright bleak. (I’m looking at you, Annie Proulx’s “Tits-up In A Ditch.”) So it was a bit of a surprise to find a short story that is so unequivocal, clear, and leaves you feeling rather refreshed at the end. I cannot guarantee that it will make your heart melt to any real degree, but I loved it, and I suspect you’ll like it, too.

Nostalgia so thick you need a chainsaw to cut it

This was my lunch yesterday at the collaborative Obon service held in Steveston. (We did it with the guys from Vancouver and Fraser Valley. This is, incidentally, my second Obon service in as many weeks — hooray for travel to places with large-ish Jodo Shinshu communities!) For those of you keeping track at home, this is chow mein, teriyaki chicken, teriyaki hotdogs, age sushi, sunomono salad, and rice. With watermelon and green tea.

I probably haven’t eaten like this since I was 12, and seeing the huge aluminum trays laid out on the tables and the random, assorted bin of hashi that had been dropped off by whoever had extra disposable ones lurking around, with the bad acoustics in a church gym and stackable wooden and metal chairs — it was damn near overwhelming. The only things missing were the green metal-sided coolers and pump-action vacuum thermoses with flowers on the side, and it would have been a perfect recreation of my childhood church experiences.

It was a meal so quintessentially Japanese-Canadian that I was nearly moved to tears. This is the stuff we ate growing up. The combination of teriyaki chicken and chow mein (yeah, I know it’s really Chinese in origin, but lookit, we made it ours) evokes memories of September, when the Calgary temple would hold its fundraising dinner, hilariously well attended by all, inside a cavernous community center with the same kinds of folding tables and stackable chairs; the moms would be in the kitchen mixing and prepping the plates of chow mein while the men would be out back in front of huge grills with laundry tubs full of chicken marinating in a sauce that we’d made a month earlier — I remember helping in the back with the grills one year when I was maybe ten or eleven and ending up so infused with the smoke I could barely stand it. Today, when I throw teriyaki-marinated meat on my own, much higher-technology grill (no chopped-in-half oil drum for me!), I get funny flashbacks to that time. Brilliant stuff.

Wanna make your own chow mein, Japanese-Canadian style? Here’s what I do:

Continue reading “Nostalgia so thick you need a chainsaw to cut it”

Hope and faith for the future

“We’ll know when we get there.”

I don’t know whether there’s an actual origin for this phrase. It’s something that’s been flitting in and out of my head for a couple of years now, since I ran into it as the title of a blog that contained a poignant post about the death of John Hughes. And the other day, turning it over, I realized what it was I liked about it: the phrase is, at its core, an expression of hope and faith for the future. A collaborative future. Not “I’ll know” — “we’ll know.” And it’ll be OK.

(Upon reflection, this seems to have been the entire theme for “Battlestar Galactica,” too.)

Is this a news report or a trailer for a motion picture?

As I mentioned in the previous post, I was up in Port McNeill over the weekend and drove home after teaching this afternoon and evening. McNeill is a long way from everything; this was the furthest up I’d ever been on Vancouver Island and it’s probably about as far north as I’m going to go for a while, barring a sudden need to instruct in Port Hardy all of a sudden (which I don’t think is going to be forthcoming anytime soon). I’ve spent most of the last two months on the road, actually, living out of my suitcase and generally being totally disconnected from my life in Victoria. Last week was strange, in that I managed to spend five nights in my own bed — the first time that had happened since the new year.

One of the interesting things about this travel is that I don’t end up paying much attention to the news. It turns out that unless it’s showing up in my RSS feed while I’m away, I probably don’t know it’s happening — I just don’t feel compelled to put the news on anymore. There are probably a bunch of reasons why this is true, starting with the fact that nothing ever really seems to change, but suddenly my not knowing what’s going on in the world seems like a great weakness, and things seem to be happening with a breakneck pace.

Consider this: When I left for Port McNeill last week, Libya was still a relatively stable country. Now it’s on fire and people are dying, and the situation is changing by the minute. In the time it took to drive from Port McNeill to Campbell River, an earthquake leveled big chunks of Christchurch, and Benghazi airport was more or less rendered inoperable, with Libyan airspace closed and refusing incoming traffic. Ambassadors began to resign their posts. A government — well, okay, a dictator — is poised to fall. I’m almost afraid of going to sleep. Who the hell knows what the world is going to look like when I wake up?

This is always true, of course. It just seems more true now, and more pressing now.

There are moments where it feels like we’re living in some kind of hyperreality, a state that is familiar and yet totally novel. The first time I really noticed it was after STS-107: talking about a Space Shuttle that “broke up on re-entry” — it was like being inside a science fiction story, and yet there it was, more or less live on TV, and unavoidably real. The idea of revolution in the Middle East, regardless of how it started, seems to underlie a lot of fiction, particularly of the action-adventure type, and often of the action-adventure gaming type, and now here we are. I was reminded, on the long and lonely drive that gave me an awful lot of time to think, of the line from “Modern Warfare 2”: “First Makarov turned the US into his scapegoat. The next thing you know, there’s flames everywhere.” Nobody scapegoated the United States here. But damn if there aren’t flames everywhere. If you don’t like that analogy, you can pick the opening to the original “Modern Warfare” where the deposed president of some unnamed country is driven to the civic square and shot on television. It hasn’t happened. Yet. But you can see it coming. Hell, you almost half-expect credits to start rolling over some of the footage we’re seeing.

My colleague, with whom I was traveling tonight, said that it felt like watching the OJ chase all over again. I pointed out that OJ didn’t have access to an air force and wasn’t shelling cities. But he wasn’t entirely wrong. I know in my head that this is mostly media coverage, and that the 24-hour cycle coupled with the immediacy of the Internet and particularly RSS feeds and especially Twitter feeds means that events can appear to be way out of proportion and seem more significant than they are. And I know that the combination of the entire Middle East in flames (or on the brink of bursting into flames) with a particularly deadly earthquake in New Zealand doesn’t mean anything at all — it’s just a stupid coincidence. But if you wanted to design a backdrop to a particularly violent and horrifying kind of early 21st century war movie, this might not be far off from what you’d choose.

I don’t mean to make light of the suffering, or trot out that tired old meme about how we process the world through the framework of entertainment and diversion — really, I don’t. I think I’m trying to process, for myself, what it means to be watching all of this, and to figure out why it all feels so surreal, and yet is completely unsurprising. It’s a very weird feeling, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

See also: full text of the original grim meathook future thing, which seems more appropriate now than ever. And oh, by the way, we’re running out of helium.

As an aside, I learned tonight the true meaning of the term “get-home-itis.” I never got it before — could never really understand how somebody really really really had to get home, to the detriment of their own safety and potentially the safety of their family. Driving through a blinding snowstorm (yes, really) around Woss, I finally figured it out, and when I did, I was awfully grateful I wasn’t driving at that moment, or flying myself home, because I knew in my heart that I would have been making bad decisions because of the desire to get home. It has been a strange, revelatory kind of day.

Go fever

We left to see The Lion King last night in a cloud of despondancy. The new ash plume was heading southeast, looking to blanket the entire United Kingdom for another five or six days. Little improvement was expected. I blamed watching BBC News through the doorway of the Civil Aviation Authority’s office on Kingsway, the first time in my life I have ever been thankful for the presence of “the crawl” on the bottom of the screen. Walking home along the Strand, I took a picture of a bar called “Stranded in London,” perfectly summing up my feelings. When I tell this story in the future, I don’t expect many to be sympathetic — “oh, how wonderful for you to be stuck in a city as lovely as London” and so forth — and I don’t expect that I’ll ever be able to fully explain how awful it feels to be trapped on the other side of the planet with no way to get home. I suspect that it will be one of those things you have to experience first hand to fully understand. And do I ever understand it now.

So it was with some trepidation that we turned on Sky News in our Notting Hill apartment upon returning, expecting to hear more bad news — flights canceled, airspace restrictions continue, blah blah blah. I mentally prepared myself to start making preparations to decamp for Paris or Frankfurt or Munich or Madrid. Imagine my complete surprise at the word: flights from London airports expected to resume tonight, normal operations planned from Heathrow and Gatwick by British Airways for tomorrow, check airlines for further details. The netbook was spinning up before I finished reading the crawl on the TV. And there it was, in glorious green on “AC855 LHR to YVR. Scheduled. On time.”

Fast forward nine hours. We’re here in the London Lounge, killing the two hours before the gate opens and boarding begins. ACA855 is still showing ready to operate, scheduled to depart on time at 1055L this morning. FlightAware does not have routing information right now, which is a bit strange, but hardly unusual for non-North American departures. There is a mood of giddy optimism in the lounge this morning, and Heathrow was not the chaos I expected — likely the results of careful access controls on the terminal buildings, as well as discretion on the part of travelers. The departure information boards show a lot of canceled flights, but a lot of operating ones, too; Air Canada seems intent on operating this flight today, and I dearly hope they do.

Wait, I lied: while I was typing the above paragraph, FlightAware suddenly had routing information loaded into it.

BUZAD T420 WELIN UT420 TNT UN57 POL UN601 MARGO UN590 NINEX UP59 BALIX 6400N 02000W 6700N 03000W 6900N 04000W 7000N 05000W ADSAM 6900N 08000W 6730N 09000W 6530N 10000W YSM J528 YWL T201 ELIDI WHSLR2

I don’t have mapping handy right now so I can’t tell for sure, but that looks an awfully lot further north than these flights usually go. Comparison with previous flights shows a maximum latitude of 6800N; we’re apparently going to 70N. Ok, not an awful lot further — but further north just the same. (I’ll map this out tomorrow night when I get home.)

Allah be praised: it looks like we’re really going home. I don’t expect sympathy, or even understanding — just relief. I might kiss the ground in international arrivals in Vancouver.

Day 6

Still here. Last night, we thought we had a glimmer of good news, in that a bunch of flights were supposed to operate from London airports later today. That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, and Iceland continues to spew more ash in our direction. Sky News is reporting that BAW’s 18:10 arrival from Beijing left China about an hour ago (it’s currently 09:44L), so maybe they know something we don’t. Or they’re planning to divert. I dunno.

We are considering our options for re-routing. Madrid and Barcelona don’t offer good Star Alliance services (most route through Frankfurt, which doesn’t really help); I am wondering about whether Germany offers a better chance than Spain right now. It’s probably easier to get to, at any rate.

I’m likely to write a series of posts over the next few days wherein I say some relatively uncomplimentary things about the United Kingdom. Please, UK-fans — don’t take it personally. I just want to go home.