Monday, November 30, 2015


We had a very lovely "One Hour/One Painting" session at Laguna Art Museum yesterday afternoon.  We sat for our hour with David Ligare's big painting, "Rock" (2012, 60" x 80")--an ideal subject, it turned out, with far more detail to contemplate than could possibly have been exhausted in the single hour.  It was a richly rewarding experience, and one that every one of the 20 - 25 participants (I did not do an exact head count, and forgot to ask the museum staff to take pictures) seemed to enjoy. There was warm, genuine enthusiasm in the Q & A that followed, some great questions, and good feedback.

I have been offering these sessions for some twenty years now, and have grown quite comfortable with the process. For those who have not joined me, it's an exercise in looking at an art work that involves a combination of two ancient, time-tested skills: meditation and contemplation. In meditation, the gaze is inward--a processing and digestion of external information, and an opportunity to relax and bring the mind back into a state of focus and concentration. In contemplation, the gaze is outward, toward the object, intense, and consciously sustained. For centuries it has been used as a spiritual practice, a way to contemplate the cross, for example, or the image of a saint.

In this light, "One Hour/One Painting" is about the aesthetic experience, yes. We tend, for the most part, even as art lovers, to look only glancingly at paintings in museums and galleries and, as I always point out in these sessions, are likely to spend more time with the wall label than with the painting itself. We end up seeing, not the painting, but an object transformed by our own prior knowledge and judgments, our likes and dislikes, our assumptions about "good" art, and what it should look like. We rarely take the time to suspend all this baggage and look at what's actually there, in front of our eyes.

But these sessions, I like to think, involve more than just looking. I see them also as spiritual exercises, taking us for a short while out of the mundane experience of our daily lives and into the realm of the numinous, of "pure mind," where the suspension of normal perception and quotidian concerns allows us the brief experience of what, for want of a better term, I'll call bliss.  If, in my "One Hour/One Painting" sessions, I can "teach" a way into this experience, I feel I have done something of value--a great personal satisfaction as well as a welcome practical outcome for the discipline and work that goes into a daily meditation practice. For this, I'm deeply grateful.

Thanks to David Ligare, for providing us with so beautiful an object of contemplation. He spent many more hours with it, in the studio, than we did on a Sunday afternoon in the museum. His was the work. Ours, the pleasure.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Here's a sad acknowledgment, crystallized into an insight at some moment during this morning's meditation: as a young man--and, in truth, through much of my life, I knew only how to stimulate and satisfy myself; and did not realize, then, how shallow that satisfaction was.

I suspect this is true of most young men.

I wonder if it might be true of men at large, no matter their age?

Which may sound trite, but I have always believe'd that sex is the hidden engine that drives all of our lives. I'm convinced that it exercises a profound, if often unacknowledged effect on every other aspect of human life, including the larger and apparently unrelated ones; today, perhaps, on the many crises we are experiencing throughout the world.

We men should consider ourselves, as a gender, fortunate, that women have been learning to reject our "protective" care, to take care of themselves, and to demand their needs be met.

Together, with consciousness, mutual understanding--and with love--we might yet save the planet. And that would be something to be thankful for, this Thanksgiving Day.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


What would Buddha do, in the face of the violence we are witnessing in the world today?

"Evil" is a word not much used in Buddhism, at least in the fairly extensive reading I have done over the years; but to call such dreadful acts "unskillful" is surely less than adequate.

Violence, as I understand it, is justified when it comes to self-defense. A Buddhist is not required to cower before physical threats and accept the harm done to him.

But what kind action is called for in defense of others? In defense, let's say, of those women described in the NY Times article to which I offered a link yesterday--women abused and violated by ISIS "warriors"? Or the many thousands of innocents who suffer persecution, torture, execution at their hands? Or the victims--and the future potential victims--of their terrorist attacks?

In theory, I'm a pacifist. I hate violence, whether at the personal or the international level. I am shamed even by the small acts of physical violence I have committed in my life. (I'll admit it, on occasion I crush ants; and I swat mosquitos mercilessly.)

But we Brits, along with our allies, were right to face down the Nazi threat, its terror tactics, its slaughter of innocent lives. Comes a point where you cannot, morally, stand by when confronted with the worst of human behavior. When violent, military response is the only option left to you.

So where do we stand now, in the face of an organization committed to violent conquest and the suppression of everything we consider to constitute humanity? If he had bombs, would the Buddha drop them? If he had "boots" to "put on the ground", would he send them in? (Incidentally, it's despicable, I think, to reduce those human lives to military footwear. I've heard those words too often.)

I don't have the answers to these questions. But think it right to ask them. I am, after all, complicit in the affairs of humankind.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


This story in today's New York Times should shame all those who proclaim their opposition to our country's welcoming even a handful of refugees from Syria.  Should we protect ourselves at the cost of all compassion? The shameful vote in Congress to make it all but impossible for refugees to reach our shores, along with the equally shameful refusal of (almost exclusively Republican) governors--these are symptoms of the kind of sickness I write about below.  When compassion dies, so does humanity.


In the light of recent terrorist attacks, it seems that in the modern era we humans have managed to create armies of severely disaffected people who threaten to destroy the appearance of civility we so painstakingly constructed. Exposed, now, is the dark underbelly of our species, where fear, hatred, vengeance and murderous intentions thrive. Perhaps not coincidentally, on what might appear to be the upside of human endeavor, in the "civilized" world, materialism and greed combine to threaten the very planet we live on.

Useless to look to our military power for the solution to these problems. Current circumstances expose the limits of its effectiveness to anyone with a clear mind. Not all the smart bombs in the world are smart enough to root out the malady that besets us.  Instead, we need to look to ourselves, to our own humanity.  We need a radical redefinition of what it means to be a human being, on a planet that teems with ever vaster numbers of our species, all hungry, all in need of shelter and the basics of good health--clean water, not least, but rather the most needful of all. We need a radical new understanding of how we can all live together in this narrow space.

Is there some Buddha now being reborn, who can lead us into this new enlightenment?  I personally hope so.  But even if there were, would anybody listen?  Christians, some of them at least, await the return of Christ.  I don't think that's going to happen before they learn to practice what their "savior" taught. Do Muslims await the return of their prophet? I have no knowledge on this subject, though surely no sane person could believe he would condone the vile, barbaric actions of fanatics who justify them in his name.

Given how we have managed to distort the teachings of our religions, I'd argue that we can no longer look to them to help us out of the global crisis we have created on our own, without the help of any God.  It behooves those of us who live with the daily comforts of the civilization we have built to look more closely, and more critically, into our own hearts and minds, to understand ourselves a little better than we do, and to be more honest about the state of our own health.  We many find that the malicious virus of the terrorists by now infects us all.