Friday, September 30, 2005

I'm testing out a new blog. I keep getting to a point where I feel like I've pigeon-holed a blog into a theme or concept, separate from my life, and I get bored with it. Hopefully the new concept will be flexible enough and the pigeonhole big enough for me not to get bored with it. I'll let you know if it feels like it can get off the ground.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

I stopped shooting black and white film regularly because the cost, inconvenience, and time required to make prints became prohibitive. Discovering negative scanning has put the bee back in me bonnet for shooting black and white. Scanning shots directly onto my computer and being able to upload them onto the web has been an additional incentive. When I was shooting black and white regularly, I was still web illiterate. Before, I had to carefully choose which shots to print off of contact sheets, and most frames never saw the light of day. The ones that did got stuck in an album or framed and given as gifts. With negative scanning, every shot can be enlarged and given a fair chance of exposure.

I rode into New York today and finished a roll of PX125 film that I've had for maybe 10 years and has been in and out of refrigerators for just as long. I never got into pushing and pulling film and manipulating exposures and processing to get a desired shot. I'm not technical at all, so that put me kindly into the serendipity school of shooting and processing. So if bizarreness comes out of this expired and abused roll of unusual Kodak black and white film which will probably be dumped in and processed with a bunch of rolls of Tri-X, I'll be thrilled.

I learned to appreciate the serendipity of the vagaries of film when I got several rolls of Tri-X processed in Bangkok and they obviously had never processed a roll of Tri-X, but had a manual written in Shakespearean English on how to do it. At first, I was horrified and upset that they "ruined" my negatives, but upon trying to make the best of it and printing some shots, I was pleasantly surprised and duly introduced to the world of "effect" photography:

June 9, 1997 - Thailand (uncorrected scan)

Unlike most of my black and white scans, the darkroom prints of these negatives were much better, although a bitch to figure out the exposures. Still, I can live with the above, although I'd correct the contrast, maybe blur out some of the graininess.

However, although serendipitous weirdness is good, I'm still a conventional photography purist, and not so much into cheap trick effect photography without a clear artistic vision. (right, that's why I started hearing voices saying, "buy me, buy me" when I saw a lomo fisheye camera at the Museum of Modern Art gift shop).

I like the idea of photographs as memory, rather than art. I've never thought of myself as an "artist" in anything I do. But photographs I like to look at have that "memory" quality to them, rather than great subject matter or perfect artistic composition. Instead, a "this happened" quality to something that may not have been noticed otherwise. A scene for someone's memory that got captured imperfectly in black and white, in two dimensions and definite borders. I also always flip my negatives to remove the memory another step from reality, since memory shouldn't be confused with reality. Unless there are words in the shot that are integral or would be distracting to the shot if left backwards (yes, the shot above is flipped - it's not what I saw).

I want to go shoot again tomorrow, but I need to find a place that sells the film that I want. Shops are open on Labor Day, aren't they? I can't believe I let myself run out of film!

Saturday, August 20, 2005

September 30, 2003 - Sequoia National Park

Blog comes to use! I found a mystery roll of black and white film in my room at my parents' house and got it processed. I don't supposin' anyone's noticed from my flickr and fotolog accounts that I'm particularly anal meticulous about recording when photos are taken. Digital is easy since date and time is recorded automatically, but even when I used to shoot black and white film, I used to keep track of camera activity. So I got this roll of film processed and it turned out to be from a day trip to Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park and then some shots around Battery Park in Manhattan (go fig). No idea when these shots were taken. But a quick search through blog archives and I've been able to locate some dates. I am so fucking anal it's not even funny.

Battery Park - December 2003

Monday, August 15, 2005

February 25, 1995 - Seacliffs, San Francisco

Englewood Cliffs, NJ
My brother's back from honeymoon, so I'm no longer spending hours and hours at his place scanning negatives. I'm still not doing anything in furtherance of a future, still no motivation to return to the monastery, quite the opposite. The Sangha is on Thich Nhat Hanh's speaking tour now on the East Coast, and I have no desire to be a part of that. Weird what a turnaround that was, but it doesn't mean inspiration won't strike in the next couple months and have me booking a flight to France.

At this point, no Nagasaki plans, no Taipei plans, no job plans. Although revisiting all those black and white negatives has gotten me to pull out my SLR again, which has film in it from I don't know when. The last roll of film I remember developing was from foto-strolls with the SF fotolog gang, so this roll can't be that old. It's at the end of the roll, so I'll try finishing it off tomorrow, get it developed, and scan in the negatives. I feel so tech. But if I was really techy, I'd have a digital SLR. The current heatwave is apparently over, so once it stops raining, I want to ride into New York. I have a hankering to go to the Village and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Practice-wise, I've been more immersed in Tibetan stuff, which makes the Zen stuff look like kid stuff. I still stand by the Zen stuff, as that was my initial attraction and initiation to these teachings and philosophies, and I think that my current fascination with Tibetan teachings is because that's where Zen had been taking me anyway. Zen got me to a place where Tibetan teachings are comfortable and familiar, so for me there's not much of a disjuncture between the two paths. But as far as Tibetan Buddhists look down on Zen Buddhists, that's just unfortunate, and Zen Buddhists who don't go beyond Zen are experts at hammering nails into boards, but never learn to build anything.

To the extent that they're not the same thing, I think I would rather follow Tibetan teachings, but might not be ready for that, ergo Zen. I'm kinda in between. There were a lot of good things about the practice at Deer Park, very enriching, very challenging, but it was also easy to get complacent and cocky. It also focused on the manifest world around us and practicing in daily life and living. I've never been to a Tibetan place, but I'm attracted to how the teachings delve into the mind and consciousness and psychology. It treats the teachings as a science, verifiable by one's own experience.

I don't think I'm practicing Tibetan style these days - I mean, how could I? I think I'm basically following the Zen regimen in form, but mentally and cognitively, my ideas and thoughts are mostly spun by Tibetan teachings. And it's a trip the way it fits in with my pre-existing psychology and tendencies.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

It turns out my brother and his wife have a top line printer/copier/scanner. *Negative* scanner! I've spent the last week and a half at my brother's place while they're on their honeymoon scanning my old black and white negatives from circa 1995-1999.

I used to do this thing where I'd go to San Francisco tourist spots and take pictures of tourists getting their pictures taken.

That's what I used to do for fun. I'm starting to understand why people used to refer to me as "weird kid". All photos February 23, 1997. Copyrighted.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

I left the monastery to come to my brother's wedding, but then instead of going to Plum Village, I proposed to the monks that I stay out for 3-5 months to get clear on my path before going to Plum Village. But I got no feedback or guidance from the monks until too late, and by the time I left Deer Park, I felt I was leaving for good, and would only return under dire circumstances. The set up for me to leave under those conditions is my karma.

Two weeks away from Deer Park, I have still have no desire to return. I track my days thinking what would be going on at Deer Park, and I'm actually glad I'm not there. I don't feel that it was any loss that I interpreted the signs to indicate that I was to leave. This isn't the end of the story, of course, as I'm staying at my parents house and have yet to engage the tedium and meaningless responsibilities of material life that was part of why I ended up at the monastery in the first place. But whether I end up at Plum Village or not, I recognize that I'm looking for my true path, and I made no obligation to the monks that I would ordain in the Plum Village system.

The prevailing feeling these days has been that maybe I'm not ready to stop. Stop. That's what it was at Deer Park. We were able to stop. Wonderfully stop. It was freedom to stop. Stop and be happy, to cultivate peace, compassion, and understanding in our minds. Demons aside, I'm feeling I'm not ready for that environment because I'm still finding a lot in not stopping. In moving. There's still so much to learn. Earlier this week I went in to New York to the American Museum of Natural History and any exhibit could have been a meditation. I used to think those dioramas of the African Savannah were so cheesy, but with a little imagination and visualization, there's a whole world to scratch right there. Another time, another place, another lifetime, another set of genetics, evolution, the life cycle. Visualize the diorama extending beyond the walls and glass case until I'm in the setting, imagine the sounds, the temperature, the air, be there, be the animal, predator or prey, this is our natural history, this is our planet, and my spiritual yearnings embrace and engage it. There is a place for the mountaintop or the desert, it is a definite part of spiritual evolution. But maybe I'm not done suffering yet. Wonderful suffering. To cycle through a thousand lifetimes as predator or prey, hunt or hunted, kill and eat meat, taste blood. A hundred thousand lifetimes as an ant, the significance of my life being wasted on snotty-nosed kids whose first impulse upon seeing me is to squash me - which is fine, helps me get through the hundred thousand lifetimes quicker. On and on, and the Earth hurdles around the sun. Don't even get me started on dinosaurs. Wow!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Englewood Cliffs, NJ
Wedding weekend is over. My brother is married, and the physical reason why I left the monastery is done. The vaguer reasons why I'm not returning immediately need to play out now.

I am currently immersed in a culture and surrounded by people who think monasticism is some far off fairy tale, some mystic alternate reality which inexplicably is not concerned with making money and being entertained and accumulating material possessions with that money. They have absolutely no conception that from my point of view, they are the bizarro alternate reality. I suppose engaging this is part of my path, part of what I need to confront as the path of my karma, even if it becomes a death match.

Maybe my brother who just got married feels a similar way. He has proclaimed himself Catholic, he got married in a Catholic church and according to Catholic rules, I gather, but forewent having mass because too few attending could participate in the, what is it?, the sacrament? The cracker thing.

When reading Thich Nhat Hanh's writings on inter-faith dialogue, it feels so clear that such a dialogue is possible and can be harmonious. We're all striving for basically the same things for ourselves: happiness, to live our lives without fear or threat, to live freely. But when not reading his books, it's so hard to conceive. Faiths and religions are like Trivial Pursuit pies, each pie slice clearly blocked off and delineated from all other slices. Occassionally with interfaith dialogue, some feel-good connection can be made with other pies, a line can be thrown, but ultimately the barriers are there. We have our beliefs and they have their beliefs, and at the core of that attitude, that understanding, is that our belief is right, and something about theirs is wrong.

That's a hard one, because in my belief system, and any belief system which claims to respect the belief systems of others, we don't want to say that other belief systems have got it wrong. It offends us to think that other truly spiritual paths are in error, because once you do that to them, they can do that to you, and what are beliefs but intangible, fragile concepts which are wounded if they are disrespected or non-believed. If someone told me my belief system was shite for reasons I think are based on ignorance or intolerance, it doesn't destroy my beliefs since they are a part of my identity, but it hurts. It shakes them. It wounds them because these are world beliefs, and they are making it clear that they aren't. Or I can be indignant and ignore them, proudly maintaining righteousness in my belief. But I neither want to be shaken and wounded, or proud and indignant. I want to respect their beliefs, and I want my beliefs respected.

But that's impossible as long as I have my beliefs and they have their beliefs, because once we have those, it's almost automatic that we think our beliefs are right, and something about theirs is wrong, no matter how hard we try to respect theirs. We can only respect their beliefs on a superficial level of promising non-harm, not threatening them for their beliefs.

I don't think any of this is necessarily right, I think a paradigm shift is possible that negates all of this; one that melts down the borders of the Trivial Pursuit pie slices. One that melts down the concept of being right or wrong. One that doesn't recognize the possibility of respecting or disrespecting other beliefs. One that doesn't recognize a separation between beliefs. It's not a religious question, it's a human behavioral issue.

Religion is a mental concept and its sacredness is something we assign, and it has become so ingrained that we now call it tradition. Two thousand years of worship, and we can have tribes of people fighting and killing each other over Britney Spears and Madonna; the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; Modest Mouse and Built to Spill; John Lennon and Paul McCartney (ugh, why am I even dignifying Paul McCartney by putting him up with John Lennon?).

Not to analogize faiths and religions with pop stars. But there is a paradigm possible where the righteousness or wrongeousness of a belief system is not even an issue. All those concepts melt away. It's not easy. I can't do it. Once you start thinking it through analytically, you quickly hit concepts that we ourselves have created that necessitate deciding that this or that is right or makes sense, and this or that is wrong and doesn't make sense.

My brother just got married. One of the things he needs to work on and get rid of is the idea that he can be right. He argues and bickers with his wife. The engine that drives the arguing and bickering is impatience and anger, and the motivations or goal is the idea of being right. I try to tell him that when you're married, there can be no more concept of being right. It doesn't matter and it's not going to get them anywhere productive - lose it. Stop striving to prove you're right, and learn to listen deeply and patiently, and act wisely and unselfishly.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Englewood Cliffs, NJ
It's been almost a week since leaving Deer Park, and it's not like I'm resisting getting back into a "disciplined" practice. It's not like I would be pushing myself back into it, so I can't say that I'm just not pushing myself back into it. I shouldn't say that I'm just doing what feels natural, because that sort of letting go is a slippery slope that I'm not about to go down.

I'm still processing.

I guess I didn't want to leave Deer Park, get back to New Jersey, and immediately get back into the disciplined practice thing like normal, pretending that everything is normal and there's nothing to process. Disciplined practice would entail at least two 45 minute sittings a day, and much more disciplined reading, studying, and general engaged mindfulness during the day. I'm not vegetarian, and it would be hard to be vegetarian in my circumstances, but my ideal was to only order vegetarian when it was in my control, but not avoid meat if that is what got placed in front of me - which is actually a Theravadin ethic. In the Theravadin school, all of their food is donated, and if meat is donated, they will eat meat, even though they are vegetarian. Vegetarian, but not attached to vegetarianism.

I'm processing Deer Park. I'm processing monasticism. I'm processing my path, what little I think I know about my karma, and what I might do and where I might go in the next few months. Yep, it's a lot. And most of the processing is on a sub-conscious level, so I'm not all maudlin and depressed every day thinking about it. On the contrary, I keep winning shit off eBay. I need to stop. Paypal is a very dangerous thing.

One thing I'm processing is that Deer Park, saying nothing about Plum Village, did not have a good practice for me as a non-monastic. For the monks and nuns, fine, they've already gotten their training in Plum Village and they're so enlightened they can roller blade mindfully and let children turn the monastery into a playground, screaming and playing, every Sunday, blah, blah, blah. But if Deer Park was the root monastery, I wouldn't go there. Not enough discipline, not enough contemplation, too much assumption of perfection of mindfulness. No doubt this will change as the monastery matures (it's only five years old), but I tried to envision the environment I would want to be in to practice, and I saw something more austere, even if it meant letting go of some of the "joy" of Deer Park. Not actually losing any of the joy, but a different kind of joy. There is a joy, a quieter joy, in an austere practice with respect, open communications, and a tighter authority structure which maintained the ideals of why the monastics would be there.

And joy is one of the monastic ideals. A monastery without joy seems to miss the point for me, too, even though when I first went to Deer Park, joy was the farthest thing from my mind. As for a tighter authority structure, nothing oppressive, just a sharper focus on the ideals of compassion, wisdom, equanimity, and loving-kindness, and open communications so that everyone is always thinking of those four things in their mindfulness practice. Indeed, "mindfulness" got thrown around so much at Deer Park, that there were times I was wondering what the hell mindfulness was. There was one guy who confused "mindfulness" with "idiotically slow". And one mindfulness practice I engaged in prior to Deer Park which helped me understand it easily once I got there was urban bike riding. It's not what you're doing, but what your mind is doing. And right now, what my mind is doing is not much different from what it was doing at Deer Park. Processing.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Englewood Cliffs, NJ
So I follow my path. I'm not one of those people who believes that everything happens for a reason, but there is a reason why I left the monastery. It might be to find my true path. It might be psychological, I might have unconsciously engineered it to be this way. It might be to find out that Plum Village really is the best community for me to pursue this practice. But it does seem fitting that I'm no longer there, it feels comfortable, it seems right.

I returned to New Jersey with little fanfare. I've been here so much in the last year, that it's no big deal. My parents are even giving a vibe of being a little fed up with this directionlessness and they're going totally hands-off. Good for them. They're getting old and all they can think of is keep making money. Any deeper wisdom about life eludes them.

I didn't come back here with the idea of immediately maintaining a practice, on the contrary, I've been thinking of pushing it a way a little to see how I react, to see if it's something I can push away, or if it's really something that's sinking in. Pushing away the Deer Park practice is no big deal. Even some of the monks there would comment that the practice there, currently, is too loose, weak. For me, the mental shift of being there and being out here is not that great, which could mean my practice is particularly weak, or particularly strong, it doesn't matter.

I have been feeling a pull to keep it up, but it feels like it needs re-tooling. And to the rescue, I received an Amazon order I placed just before leaving Deer Park. I chose the free shipping and didn't expect the shipment to come until the end of next week, but it arrived on the same day that I got back here. The shipment included The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism, The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva, Meaningful to Behold, which is a commentary by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso on the Shantideva book, and I also received a 2-CD set that I won off eBay, The Monastery of Gyuto: The Voice of the Tantra for half the price. Never mind that the Amazon shipment also included a Peter Gabriel DVD, I think the hint I'm giving myself is to get some Tibetan knowledge under my belt.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, CA

Last Day:
The past week has been pretty routine, and I've been mentally checking off the last time doing things. Last Wednesday was my last cooking day, but I was relieved of both lunch and dinner duty because I was slightly sick. Last work meditation was on Saturday, sanding and sealing the exterior wood on the meditation barn. Last evening sitting/chanting on Saturday I missed because, well, just because. Last night was my last kitchen wash up day.

I don't know if this means anything, but with departure imminent, all of the things that were otherwise normal seemed like such a drag. When I was relieved of my last cooking day, I was really relieved! It felt like a reprieve. It seems my mindset is adjusting in anticipation of not being here anymore and being here doesn't seem so great anymore. I've been taking showers and really enjoying being clean afterwards. It's interesting. I'm looking forward to leaving. Most people want to stay longer.

Breaking the routine this morning, one of the lay guests had an accident. I don't have all the details yet, but he was on a trail in the small valley down from the monastery, and something about bees and he ended up spraining or breaking his ankle or leg. It was pretty bad. I happened to be wandering around when the news came up of him being injured, so I ended up on the "rescue team". It looked pretty bad and he was in a lot of pain. He's a big guy, too, so getting him on a stretcher and carrying him to the pick-up truck took a lot of care, and off he went to the hospital. Strange, right after I arrived here in October, one of the brothers slipped while jogging on the western ridge and broke his hip. And the first time I visited in October 2003, there was that firestorm!

Thank god these brothers aren't superstitious, or else I could forget any thoughts of coming back.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, CA

Stepping Out of Freedom
Thich Nhat Hahn has a book entitled Stepping Into Freedom. It’s a handbook for novice monastic living. When I realized that my letter of aspirancy had been rejected and I stopped wearing the monastic robes several weeks ago, a brother asked me, “Are you stepping out of freedom?”. Clever. But point taken. How many times have I been lying in a hammock in the late afternoon, reading a book or watching the trees and the sky and the clouds, sun bright, breeze warm, and think how if I were working, I’d be sitting in some office under fluorescent light, pushing paper and taking orders to do something I would only do if someone gave me a heaping check every two weeks?

So I leave in a week, no plans for what I’m going to do next. I’ll look more into going to Nagasaki for three months after I get back to New Jersey. I have vague ideas about teaching English in Taipei after that, but what really do I know about teaching English? I’ve done it before and it was kind of a drag. But by then I will have assessed my monastic aspirancy further and might end up in Plum Village after all. I figure I’ll be in New Jersey through August and probably into September since I tend to move slowly on life decisions.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, CA

Family Retreat
Yesterday was registration day. I survived, I think. I didn't really participate. I should clarify. After I arrived here last October, I somehow got involved in the registration office and before I knew it, I was doing hospitality for retreats. I would hang out in the back room, surfing the internet, and guests would arrive to register and then I would walk them to their rooms and unlock the door for them. New guests often had a habit energy of rushing and walking fast, and I would, by example, make them walk slowly, if not mindfully, and chat with them to help them relax. Soon I got associated with anything involving guests and guestrooms and I was given a master key. Is this odd? Yes, it is. I should have been wearing one of those t-shirts that say, "Do I LOOK like a people person?" I'm probably one of the most avoidant people here. I don't like crowds, I shrink and shy away and eventually disappear. November and December were heavy retreat months, and doing hospitality took its toll on me and stoked the fires of my negativity and exacerbated my avoidant tendencies. It was also too much work for one person, as the responsibilities I ended up volunteering for kinda snowballed, one leading to another, all under the guise of "guest master", which I was not. Or didn't think I was. Actually, considering the way a monastery works, yes, I was guest master.

When I got back here in April, I continued in the registration office, but hospitality efforts had gotten much more efficient and I started getting more support on retreat registration days, and it has been really good. I've been really good. I've been able to keep positive and stay happy doing hospitality. I don't know what happened yesterday. Some negative energy was around and with the largest retreat crowd I've been involved in (about 160 people), the registration office got so much support that I didn't have to do anything for most of the day. I ducked out right before dinner and did 45 minutes of sitting in the small hall amidst people arriving and registering right outside. With so much support, my role was more of a fallback, and as the evening wore on and there were less people arriving, I still hung out with the office manager waiting for people to show. Basically, I missed registration and ended up walking only one person to his room.

The monastics are aware of my crowd aversion, and some help me with it without making me uncomfortable. They're OK with me half-joking about disappearing for retreats (the half joking is the listening half, the half not joking is the speaking half). Although I am fully joking about booking nights at the Motel 6 downtown. I've always ended up making an effort to participate in activities during retreats. But 160 people? I'll take tomorrow as it comes.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Some monastic dining hall humor:

Guest: I love this spread, what is it?
Monk: Almond butter.
Guest: Almond butter? What's in it?
Monk: Almonds.
Monk #2: and butter.

Guest: This vegetarian ham sandwich is so good.
Monk: Don't you feel sorry for the vegetarian pigs?

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, CA

Between Weekend Retreats: Community Work Day
I’m handling retreats better than in the Winter. I don’t know why they started getting to me back then, maybe I’m adjusting better to the crowds now. Next weekend is a “Family Retreat”, and is a day longer because of the holiday weekend. Oy. It’ll be fine, I tell myself, it’ll be fine. On non-retreat weekends, we often have community work days on Saturdays when lay practitioners are invited up to help out with work projects and we feed them and house them for a night for free if they want to stay on until Sunday’s public Day of Mindfulness.

Yesterday I was on a team to clear out two guestrooms that were being used for storage because we’re going to need every room we have for next week’s retreat. I was glad that I wasn’t on the campsite clearing team that I was on all last week since I ended up getting a pretty extensive case of poison oak on my arms and legs. Just a lot of itching and scratching, no severe blistering like someone else got. The wisdom of clearing out poison oak for campsites is an interesting one. I’m not sure what the logic is. One lay person last week made the keen observation that we were just making it easier for people to get poison oak. On Friday morning walking meditation, the community walked down to the area we had worked on, and right into the area we cleared. It looked very nice, but I knew better, I knew what was in there, I wasn’t going in there. Several other people were also holding back, and I noticed it was all of us who had worked on the site. We knew better, we knew what was in there, we weren’t going in there.

Poison Oak Grove:

During work meditation, quite a few people are good on the “work”, but not so clear on the “meditation”. With one of the monks, it’s even a problem because his old habit energies come up, and work is all about getting things done, and he completely loses the meditation part and it affects other people. He’s working on it and encourages people to keep pointing it out to him by telling him to breathe. I’ve started bringing a mindfulness bell to worksites and I sound it every 45-60 minutes to get everyone to stop, breathe, and come back to mindfulness in case they’ve gotten too caught up in ‘work’. During the day, whenever we hear a bell sounded, we stop what we’re doing and bring our minds back to our breathing and the present moment. It’s habit. Except during working meditation, and the first time I did it, people didn’t respond automatically and kept working for several seconds until it dawned on them. I was told this is a practice used during Plum Village work meditation, but it seems to have been discarded at Deer Park, the frontier monastery.